Write-on Santa works miracles

Christmas around the world: Many have far too little and quite a few have had far too much

New York - The envelope is addressed simply to "Dear Santa". The letter inside pleads, politely: "May you get me a willchair. I need the willchair to be powered. I need it to get around. Can you help me Santa? I would do anything for this ... Love allways, Miracle Retrina."

The nine-year-old, born with no arms and only one functional leg, wrote the faint, crooked words by pushing a pencil with her left foot. Now Miracle Retrina Womack awaits a miracle, and Guillermina "Gigi" Colon is ready to help. "This is what life is really about," Ms Colon says, clutching the child's note as she dashes through the cavernous halls of the General Post Office in Manhattan, smiling at co-workers who greet her with "Hi Santa!"

The jolly, Dominican-born pixie is the energy behind "Operation Santa Claus", which makes Christmas dreams come true at the city's huge main post office, next to Penn Station and Madison Square Garden.

A record 153,000 Dear Santa letters had arrived by Friday to be sorted, computerised and made available to anyone who wants to become an instant guardian angel. Some come from as far away as South Africa and Japan. "Most post offices in the world know about us," Ms Colon, head of customer relations, said.

Operation Santa Claus was started nearly 70 years ago by postal workers who answered letters that were headed for the dustbin. It now attracts gifts from individuals and businesses, and is mirrored around the country at 84 other postal service consumer affairs offices.

About one-third of the New York letters are "adopted". People can pick through boxes of letters from the city's five boroughs, as well as "Foreign", "New Jersey", "Spanish" and "Mixed States". The opportunities do not end at Christmas. Hispanic children traditionally receive gifts on Epiphany in January.

Among them are requests from a New York child for spaghetti, rice and beans, blankets, a coat and - "if you can" - a real live bunny. A girl with real live mice in her house asks for a mouse trap. Another child wants a cherry-red Cadillac with matching leather interior.

Ms Colon, 45, who puts in hundreds of unpaid hours, lives with two grown sons and a two-year-old granddaughter, this year chose a letter from a single mother with three children in Brooklyn and will give them tickets for the Broadway musical Cats.

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