NORTH POLE, Alaska (AP) — It's not just the candy cane light posts and Christmas-themed street names. Another way the spirit of Christmas lives year-round here is on the day before Easter, when two dozen volunteer "elves" worked to finish Santa Claus' 2017 correspondence.

In responding to children's drawings and toy wish lists, volunteers sent them back a form letter from Santa, apologizing for being busy during Christmas and not responding sooner.

Volunteers created an elf name with which they signed the letters. In some cases, they added personalized notes, congratulating the child on being good in 2017, or thanking them for setting out milk and cookies.

Santa Claus letters have been important to North Pole since not long after the city was incorporated in 1952. But letters that arrived at the North Pole post office stopped getting responses in 2017, after the death in August of Gabby Gaborik, who ran the nonprofit organization Santa's Mailbag.

Sharon Beeman works at Forbes Storage in North Pole and didn't consider herself much of a volunteer before this fall. But she'd heard about children's Santa Claus letters piling up at the North Pole post office and decided to act in November.

"I really don't know what moved me, other than the thought of all of these children that write to Santa. We have an opportunity to give them joy," she said.

Beeman had hoped to restart responding to letters through the Santa's Mailbag organization, which had a history of responding to Santa letters in North Pole dating to 1954. But as she and a new board of directors researched the organization, they found some accounting problems. It hadn't kept up with its IRS fillings and had been run almost entirely by Gaborik with little involvement from the rest of the board, she said.

Beeman and a new board decided to create a new nonprofit organization, Santa's Letters, with a mission similar to Santa's Mailbag. Santa's Letters has an office in the Forbes Storage building on Saint Nicholas Drive but will be able to receive letters sent to 1 Santa Claus Lane, the address established by Santa's Mailbag.

"Especially financially, we were not prepared to inherit some of the issues that came with Santa's Mailbag," Beeman said.

The U.S. Postal Service, through its Operation Santa program, sends Santa Claus letters to get responses from volunteers at 15 regional hubs in the Lower 48. Thousands of other Santa letters, some of them with no postage and addressed only to "Santa Claus, North Pole" make their way to the North Pole post office and to Santa's Letters.

In addition to all the volunteer-written Santa responses, another category of Santa Claus mail comprises companies based in Alaska and elsewhere that allow parents to order customized Santa Claus letters online. Some of these letters also end up at Santa's Letters in North Pole by accident. When the letters fail to reach their intended recipients, a North Pole return address on the envelopes sends the letters to the North Pole post office, Beeman said.

On March 31, the volunteer elves were working their way through what Beeman estimated was more than 11,000 leftover 2017 letters, neatly stacked in U.S Postal Service boxes. Letters came from across the Lower 48, and from international locations including Taiwan, Italy and India.

Beeman said she'd lost count of how many letters she's sent. She picked Riki, her grandmother's name, as her elf name. She tries to personalize every letter.

Volunteering as an elf is mostly a lighthearted task. Letter writers laughed with one other about a child who enclosed seeds as "reindeer food," and another who disclosed that, despite appearances, she really does like her brother. But not all the letters are lighthearted wish lists for toys. As the elves open the envelopes, they look for special letters to flag, such as children who ask Santa Claus for things such as bringing parents or other family members back from illness or back from the dead. These letters get a more personalized response instead of the form letter.

The volunteers made a big dent in the 2017 Santa Claus mail. West Valley High School students will help with the remainder of the letters as a community service project, Beeman said. But Santa's Letters will need help from volunteers again around October, when the volume of letters begins to ramp up again. This time, Santa Claus plans to be more prompt in his correspondence.

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Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com