Dear Santa ...

PASCO -- Santa skeptics often question Mr. Claus' ability to attend to all of the world's children in just one night.

They forget that he's not alone in this massive undertaking. He's got little helpers -- Lori Cramer, for example.

Whenever a child -- or an adult, for that matter -- in the greater Tri-Cities addresses a letter to "Santa Claus, North Pole," it is routed to the Pasco post office and set aside for Cramer.

And every Christmas season, the Pasco mail carrier acts as Santa's secretary, answering every kid's letter.

They start trickling in as early as May, she said. By late November, the trickle turns to a flood -- about 400 letters each year.

Cramer opens every one, in her free time. Her job for the postal service's North Pole division is strictly voluntary. But she wouldn't miss it for the world, especially when she becomes part of a regular exchange between a child and Santa.

Cramer started answering Santa's mail seven years ago, when it still was a group effort at the Pasco post office. The group disbanded and for the past four years she has been Kris Kringle's sole representative in these parts.

Through the years, she has had many repeat customers -- children who engage in a conversation with Santa and thank him for last year's letter.

"I love that the kids appreciate it and write back and ask me about things from last year's letter," she said. "I love reading the letters; it's very fulfilling."

She says it also helps her keep in touch with what's going on in children's minds.

Alas, that mind is often preoccupied with the latest gadgets.

"It's not Barbies and toys anymore that they want," Cramer said. "Electronics have been really huge."

Many of the letters mention laptops, tablet computers and video game consoles. All listed by exact brand name, of course.

Some kids try to give Santa as much help as they can in finding the right item at the right price. They cut out store advertisements and glue them on the letter.

And some promised loyalty. "I would like to have a laptop," wrote Emely from Kennewick. In return, she said, "I will always believe in you."

Other requests are big, but unusual.

Natalie would like "A BIG STUFFED PIG." Her lower-case postscript specifies the swine "should be as big as my table." One boy's long list included a metal detector. A girl humbly requested a five-piece double-bass drum kit and an electric guitar.

Some children know what it means to be on Santa's list and address their requests accordingly.

"I'd like a Fushigi ball," wrote Alexis. "But if I'm not on the good list, I'd like some candy."

There's much humor in these letters -- even on the envelopes.

"No stamp, urgen, sory," one sender successfully pleaded with the federal bureaucracy.

It's no wonder Cramer sends out 400 replies on her own dime every year -- getting these letters looks to be a lot of fun.

Although each year a few are heartbreaking.

Perhaps none more than this wish scrawled in a small child's handwriting: "Can you please make Arlene stop drinking?"

Another girl wrote that she just wanted to be treated right by her mother. The girl allowed that she was at "a tough age right now," but that she still wanted her mother to understand her.

Each year, a few of the letters reveal serious poverty and hardship. The writers don't ask for XBoxes or laptops -- they just want Christmas.

Last year, it got so bad that Cramer went from being the secretary to impersonating the boss. She and her husband bought toys for the five most desperate letter writers and delivered them to the children's homes.

She'll do that again this year -- but just for the one girl who most stuck out in her memory.

"Oh, I've been waiting for her letter," Cramer said Monday as she opened the envelope.

The girl, Maria, turned in the simplest of requests last year -- some candy and coloring books for her and her brothers. That despite the fact that her oldest brother had tried to convince her there was no Santa.

"It was so sweet that she asked for things for her brothers too," Cramer said. "That's rare."

Last Christmas Eve, the Cramers found the girl's home on a dark street in Mesa and knocked on the door, unannounced.

"I said, 'I'm Santa's helper; I came to bring these presents,' " Cramer said. "There really is a Santa."

Everyone -- parents, brothers and the little girl -- just stared, speechless. "She was really shocked that she had presents," Cramer said.

The girl had plenty to say in this year's four-page letter. It started with, "Wow, Santa, I have really miss you a lot."

She's getting a little older and has included a lipstick on her list of requests. Her brother -- not the one who doesn't believe in Santa -- was hoping for a small gift card so he can buy some things for school.

But really, just some candy and coloring books would be wonderful, Maria wrote.

No matter if the letter asks for candy canes or gigabytes, Santa is real for each writer. But it is nice when a kid wants nothing but to get in touch with Mr. Claus.

"Dear Santa -- I like you and just wanted to say hi," wrote Izmani from Grandview.

Jacques Von Lunen: 509-582-1402; jvonlunen@tricityherald.com