Secret ‘elves’ busy at work at Santa’s mailroom in Danville
By Lou Fancher
By day, Erin Stanley works in the finance department at Salesforce. But for a few days this time of year, the Danville resident becomes an elf.
Stanley is one of 25 “helpers” who volunteer their time to respond to letters to Santa Claus, collected by the town as part of the annual Santa’s Mailbox program.
The town receives an average of 700 letters a year, making it the most popular activity among residents, said program coordinator Jessica Wollner. “It’s never hard to find people to participate in holiday magic,” she said.
Stanley said she has participated the past four years because her company supports volunteerism and because giving back is in her DNA. Besides, she once wrote to Santa.
“Of course I wrote letters. But they never had anything as organized as this. I grew up in Canada, even closer to the North Pole than Northern California, but we never got letters back,” she said.
“Why am I volunteering for a second year?” said Head Elf Jessica Stemmler. “Because it’s so much fun. It’s rewarding, and interacting with the other elves is delightful.”
For their responses, the elves use four templates as guides.
“Usually there’s a lot of asking for the trend toy of the moment,” said Wollner. “We can’t make promises, so if they want a bike or a puppy, we don’t mention it specifically. If they ask about a parent overseas in the military, we can say we hope they are safe, but we can’t make any promises they will come home.”
The templates mention Rudolph’s excitement, Santa’s cookie-eating anticipation, kids keeping their rooms clean and behavior equally tidy, elves packing the sleigh and being busy, busy, busy. Of course, there’s a little leeway for creative license.
“They can exaggerate the number of elves or their age as Santa, things like that,” says Wollner.
Although the letters are primarily from Danville residents and schools, this year a package of letters from students at La Escuelita Elementary School in Oakland arrived.
“I’ve been doing this for 10 years,” says Wollner. “This is the first time we’ve had letters from a whole class in Oakland. I’m guessing the teacher found out about us.”
Most letters sent to Santa begin with having been good, swiftly followed by requests.
“I am 5 years old. I have been kind. For Christmas I would like a yo-yo,” writes Eric.
“May I have a pupe. A rell one,” asks Mathew.
Serenity writes that she is responsible and wants “cheerleading.” Whether that’s a sparkly outfit or an opportunity, she leaves up to Santa.
Brice is the magnanimous writer: “My dad is realey cool! Can you please (heavily underlined) get him tools for wood, and smocking tools. And can I have some Pokeman cards please.”
Amelia Zehnder, 15, a student at Venture Independent School, said she’s lived in Danville her whole life and thought it would be cool to give back to her hometown.
“This is my first time volunteering. I want the kids to feel happy,” she said. “I want them to keep that magic going.”
Lauren Berg, 18, remembers temporarily losing the Santa magic.
“I was 8, and I lost a tooth and noticed the letter back was my dad’s handwriting. I made the connection when I realized Santa and the Easter Bunny were him too.”
Her mother, Carolyn Berg, said her husband tried to alter his handwriting when he wrote the letters, but eventually, their daughter uncovered the truth. Santa-writing therefore, is a resumption of the magic that the mother-daughter team cling to, despite reality.
The young Berg grins as she describes a just-completed letter she knows will bring excitement to the recipient who happens to be a student she teaches in a local dance class. Berg’s mother shares a similar expression when she learns she can exaggerate for fun.
Thinking of a child who writes missing a parent or loved one changes the mood — until she says, with a smile, “If they have a parent far away or not there, I’d tell them they’re there in spirit. I’d want the child to feel loved and secure and living in a world of magic.”