For the second December, three elves are using a mailbox in front of a house in northeast Minneapolis to collect letters to give to their boss, a Mr. S. Claus.
They are corresponding with the boys and girls who write to St. Nick, sending back handwritten letters.
"We tell them Santa is super busy, but he loves getting letters and did have a chance to read theirs and we are helping by replying," said Megan Johnson, 29, the Elfin ringleader.
In St. Paul, children can mount a stepstool and peer through eyeholes into a magical box to see a miniature Christmas Village diorama and a video message from the North Pole's most famous resident.
During this pandemic December, social distancing means children won't get the chance to sit on Santa's lap to confide their fondest Christmas wishes.
But even as many holiday traditions have been whittled down or put on hold entirely, a few jolly Minnesotans have stepped up to make the season bright for local children. These helpers are busy spreading cheer without corporate sponsors, motivated by their love of the holiday and compensated with the smiles of the children they reach.
Three merry millennials
Born in December and given Noel as her middle name, Johnson's love of Christmas heightened when she worked as an elf at Macy's Santaland.
When she spotted an "Official North Pole Delivery" mailbox at a craft store, she hatched the idea that she and her two roommates should put the red novelty container to proper use.
"We want to keep the magic alive and keep the world a little brighter for kids," she said.
The trio, who share a house and the epistolary project, are all past Renaissance Festival players, experienced in taking on personas. Last year, before posting the mailbox in their front yard (on the 2200 block of Arthur Street), they each formulated elf names and personalities.
KayCee Bucher, a preschool teacher and seamstress, is Button the tailor elf. She replies to children who ask Santa for art supplies or craft toys. Andrew Orrison, who works in IT, is Spark. He answers letters from kids who want techie gifts. And Johnson, who channels Dilly the elf who makes Christmas pickle ornaments and even has green hair, replies to the rest.
Making the neighborhood aware of their project with posts on NextDoor and Facebook, the elves crafted personalized responses to about 40 letters last December, even finding help to write back to believers who wrote to Santo Clós in Spanish.
"I want to foster that creative spirit in kids. I tell them how wonderful it is to make things; don't worry if it's not perfect, just keep it up," said Bucher, who writes lines like, "I am sure that if you are kind to others, Santa will bring you just the right gift this year." She signs her letters "with warm elfy hugs."
Among the letters dropped into the mailbox last year were four written by Lynn Barbeau's grandchildren, between the ages of 3 and 8.
"The oldest one wrote for the littlest one, who signed her name; they drew pictures. Their parents are so busy, this is the kind of little stuff grandmas are glad to do," Barbeau recalled.
Both Barbeau and the grandkids were "thrilled" with the notes that came back. She will supervise their letter writing again this year and expects the anticipation will only grow.
"Little kids don't get letters so it's really exciting for them," she said.
"These elves put a lot of care and thought into it. They are being Santa in their own way, passing the good along. Someday, when the kids start questioning Santa, remembering how they were given this just out of kindness might help them understand the spirit of the myth."
As the 2020 envelopes begin to arrive, they are added to a box of last year's letters that have been saved, cherished and reread for their sweet innocence.
"Don't get me on the naughty list," one child pleaded. "Please bring me one of Rudolph's baby reindeer," another wrote, then helpfully clarified, "It should be a stuffie, not a real reindeer." Another child asked for Legos, toys for their pets and "world peace."
This year, the elves are taking precautions. They wear masks and gloves as they open each envelope on their porch, then take pictures of the letters they will reply to.
They expect their handwritten responses might mean even more now.
"Kids aren't able to spend time with Santa in person so we hope this little ritual can help them experience a little glimpse of normalcy in their lives," said Johnson aka Dilly.
"Everyone can use something like this right now; adults are welcome to drop off letters, too. Bringing a little joy to others gives me that Christmas feeling. I love it."
Santa's magic mailbox
A special mailbox on a secluded street in Highland Park is also collecting letters to Santa.
"I told my kids I got a call from the North Pole and they were sending me a device that I'm supposed to use to gather up letters for Santa," said Dave Meeker, who conceived the Santa's Magic Mailbox project that is up and running in his side yard.
About the size of a dorm fridge, the red wooden box has a mail slot at its bottom, and the stepstool allowing kids to peer into his Christmas Village diorama.
"COVID has been hard on all of us," Meeker said. "When we don't have the usual hoopla, little things become more important. To give a little kid a moment they will remember makes you feel good."
The father of three young children, Meeker is head of innovation for a global digital ad agency; his job involves building interactive experiences for corporate clients.
He used those skills to rig the mailbox with a motion detector that turns on twinkly lights as a child approaches. Another motion detector triggers the on-screen Santa, who reassures young viewers that he will be making his rounds.
"To make it seem more like a mysterious portal, I put the box around the side of our house so it feels like Santa just kind of dropped it there," he said. "Imagine you're on a walk at dusk and you feel like you've stumbled onto this thing. If you're 5 years old, that's pretty magical."
Meeker's holiday project, located at 2069 Lower St. Dennis Road, is at the same time old-fashioned in its simplicity and utterly up-to-date. It has a North Pole Post website, northpolepost.org, complete with a Google map with geo-coordinates (goo.gl/maps/7zTTYTiyRiE9QKkk7) to locate it, plus a #magicmailbox hashtag and Facebook page (Facebook.com/santasmagicmailbox) for families to share their photos of the experience.
There's even a QR Code painted on the side of the mailbox so anyone who finds it can learn more.
Meeker expects to mail letters back to those with return addresses so that parents can keep them.
"This whole idea has been so much fun to execute. I did it as a break from the weird world of corporate America which has become even more weird," Meeker said.
"I have no agenda other than to make Santa real and to remind all of us that Christmas is happening. It will be different but we will take care of each other and get through this together."
Kevyn Burger is a broadcaster, writer and the harried mother of three children all born between Thanksgiving and Christmas.