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The Spirit of Giving

To people who believe in giving from the heart, New York at holiday time can feel more like a series of parallel universes than a city in the midst of celebration.

Outdoor malls and Madison Avenue boutiques are filled with people who want for nothing, gift-shopping — busily, joyfully, even crabbily — for people who have everything. But for New Yorkers who struggle to make ends meet during the rest of the year, the shopping days until Christmas mark a countdown to sadness.

“Dear Santa,” one mother writes, “I am a single parent and hardly make my paycheck. My family does not know how hard it is for me. And I would never want them to know. They are good kids. Can you please help me give them something?”

For 80 years, the main Manhattan post office on 33rd Street and 8th Avenue has received “Operation Santa Claus” letters like these from parents and kids in need of hot meals, warm clothes, small and — these are wish lists — humungous toys. Originally, postal workers answered all the letters themselves. But over time, the numbers grew too great — 300,000 letters are expected this year — and the public was enlisted to anonymously fulfill the holiday wishes of neighbors who might otherwise go without.

Since 1997 I have traveled with piles of Operation Santa Claus letters to holiday parties hosted in homes, offices, schools, bars and church basements to make it easier for more people to get involved. At each party, I repeat the lesson I learned from a Bronx schoolteacher about how a 10-year-old, at-risk boy turned around his grades — and confidence — after receiving a coat from an anonymous Santa. I share the tip I learned from two guys in Chelsea who fulfill Operation Santa Claus letters together each year instead of exchanging gifts because “neither one of us needs another scented candle.”

I must confess that while Operation Santa Claus satisfies the obligation to give tzedakah I learned in Hebrew school, I initially answered a letter as a way of curing my lifelong case of Santa envy — a craving to be part of the shopping madness, the tinsel and list-checking twice that eight days of Chanukah never seemed to fulfill. It’s a guilt-filled condition that many Jewish guests I’ve met at parties share.

As I learned over the years, there’s a good reason for the envy; not so much for the guilt.

Santa, far from being a religious figure, is a secular hybrid turned seasonal salesman, thanks to early 20th-century corporations looking to boost sales in the all-important fourth quarter. While his job description was fairly modern — and powerful; 23% of this year’s total retail spending will occur during the holiday season, according to one estimate — the idea of gathering together to make merry and gift one’s way through the dark nights of winter preceded modern marketing, and even the birth of the historical Jesus. A quick look at religious history shows the early Christian church moving Jesus’ birthday from March to December, to counter the popularity of the beloved pagan winter celebration of Saturnalia.

The bottom line, no matter your faith: The urge to give through the dark nights of winter is pan-sectarian, if super-commercialized, and above all, human.

To give, as it turns out, is to receive. In my years as a “tzedakah Santa,” I have met hundreds of the most giving people in New York. Their stories serve as constant reminders that the person who just stole my cab, or pushed ahead of me at the subway turnstile, could very well be an undercover Santa.

Many of my party hosts have become Operation Santa Claus regulars. Each year, I bring letters to the home of a Westchester mom who answers letters with her two young daughters, and to the corporate cafeteria of a midtown executive who teamed up with his 10 brothers and sisters to deliver Christmas gifts to a firefighter’s widow after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The more I chat with people, the more I discover that the urge to give may be at the heart of the New York personality. The waiter at my local Italian restaurant and his wife celebrate Christmas Day each year with the Operation Santa Claus family whose letter they first answered six years ago. A teenage girl in the suburbs answers a letter as the “mitzvah” part of her bat mitzvah and becomes pen pals with a girl her age who lives in the Bronx.

Even in the toughest years, New York Santas continue to give. In December 2001, I traveled to “Love, Santa” parties with letters tattered from the aftereffects of anti-anthrax microwaves. The city was shaken; merriment was as rare as Harry Winston diamonds. Still, the Santas came.

A friend of mine claims that New Yorkers will always rise to meet a challenge. “You raise the bar,” he says, “and we just aim higher.”

I spent the day leading up to this year’s first “Love, Santa” party writing the script for the televised tree lighting at Rockefeller Center. In the production truck, between edits, I watched the sun shine outside via monitor, crowds gathering. Crew members stood in for the stars who were to sing later that night as the camera operators perfected their angles. The 79-foot tree — a traditional Saturnalian-turned-Christmas symbol and a lasting icon of New York — was filled with possibility.

At 6 p.m., I left the truck with 200 Operation Santa Claus letters. At 7 p.m., as I introduced a group of 50 to the joys of anonymous giving 50 blocks downtown, 100,000 people cheered uptown in anticipation of the lights as the first songs were sung.

At 9 p.m., the tree was lit. Downtown, in a roomful of Santas, another 100 letters were answered.

Sharon Glassman, author of “Love, Santa: A Different Kind of Christmas” (Warner Books), brings letters from the U.S. Post Office’s Operation Santa program to letter-answering parties throughout December.

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