By Simon Book
On a recent December morning, Gabriele Rochau was visiting a school in the Bavarian city of Munich. Outside, it was freezing cold and wet. But Rochau was there to conjure up completely different visions of winter in the heads of the children: snow, Christmas tree decorations, gifts and other trappings of the festive season.
The 56-year-old sat in front of the first graders at Munich's St Anna elementary school. The lesson plan included writing letters -- or in some cases drawing letters, as many of the children were still too young to write properly.
The addressee for their efforts is the Christkind (Christ Child), the southern German counterpart to Father Christmas. In the letters, the children communicate their Christmas wishes, either through pictures, by cutting out photographs from catalogues or by sending colorfully decorated words.
Since the 1960s, there have been certain post offices in Germany that will even answer those letters. It all started with a few isolated letters. They ended up in distribution offices but nobody really knew where to send them. As a result, postal workers would often open the undeliverable letters in their free time and simply answer them themselves.
Post Office at Heaven's Door
But although that approach worked fine with a small number of letters, it wasn't long before a more professional system was needed. The number of letters rose every year. In 1965, Germany's first "Christmas post office" opened in Himmelsthür, a part of the city of Hildesheim in Lower Saxony whose name, appropriately, means "heaven's door."
Over the years, other post offices in places that sound like they might be associated with Christmas have added special Christmas post offices, which are only open during specific months, usually from early November until late December. Those places include Engelskirchen ("angels' church"), Himmelpfort ("heaven's gate"), Himmelpforten ("heaven's gates") and Himmelstadt ("heaven's city").
Meanwhile Santa Claus himself is not left out. Letters addressed to Father Christmas, who is also known in Germany as Saint Nicholas, end up in one of two places: Nikolausdorf ("Nicholas village") in Lower Saxony or St. Nikolaus in Saarland.
Staffed by Volunteers
All of the temporary post offices are staffed by volunteers. And if the children manage to get everything right -- the sender's details, the addresses and the stamps -- then they will get a letter back from one of the unpaid helpers of Santa and the Christkind. Around 620,000 such replies are written every year in Germany.
The letters being written by the children of Munich's St. Anna's school will be sent to the Christmas post office in Himmelstadt in Bavaria. The Christmas post office there is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. It receives around 65,000 Christmas letters each year from children all around the world.
But that total pales into insignificance when compared to the number of letters that arrive at Santa Claus' main post office in Germany. In Himmelpfort in the eastern state of Brandenburg, they received 280,000 letters last year. Around half of the letters written to Santa or the Christkind end up here. Some 20 helpers write back, in German, Polish or Chinese, as well as in around a dozen other languages.
Santa Doesn't Do Digital
In fact, the only correspondence that Santa's helpers in Germany won't answer is e-mail. In the US, things are different. The American Santa Claus gets fewer actual letters, receiving just 11,000 in 2009. Most children in the US send their wish lists via e-mail: Almost half a million e-mails arrive every year at the Christmas post office in the town of Santa Claus, Indiana, which has been receiving Santa's mail since 1856.
In France, children can also send e-mail. Although most of the mail for Père Noël(as the French call Father Christmas) still comes by traditional post, the number of children writing e-mails continues to grow. Around 200,000 e-mails were sent to the French Santa last year, compared to 1.5 million letters.
So why is it that the German Santa will only reply to letters sent on paper? His helpers are diplomatic in their answer, explaining that children can't include little bribes like a drawing or even a specially baked cookie in an e-mail. "Many children try that," says Britta Töllner from the Christmas post office in Engelskirchen near the city of Cologne. To say thank you for the small gifts, the Engelskirchen helpers put a little something into each reply, such as a paper model for the children to build. That sort of thing wouldn't be possible with e-mail.
Keeping Christmas Mail Special
And that is why Santa, or his representatives, will never answer e-mails in Germany. "No way," says Töllner. "Children should also get post from the Christkind in the future too -- it is something special."
Her colleague Jens-Uwe Hogardt, a spokesperson for Deutsche Post, the German postal service, in Hamburg, adds: "Obviously we, as the postal service, want children to write letters. This way they learn how to do it properly."
Hence Deutsche Post is expanding its support for the Christmas letter writers. One example of this is the small town of Himmelsberg ("heaven's mountain") in the state of Thuringia. The town has been answering letters sent to Santa for over 20 years.
Until recently, a village club had been taking care of the letters, paying for the envelopes and stamps for the replies, which were written by volunteers. Nobody in the club had even thought to inform Deutsche Post about it.
But the postal service found out about the practice and decided to get involved. "For a club like this, it can be an expensive undertaking, after all," says Alexander Böhm, the Deutsche Post spokesperson responsible for the area. His company now pays for the paper, the envelopes and the stamps. "It's also a little bit of advertising for us in the process," he adds.
Next year, Himmelsberg will get its own postmark signifying its status as a Christmas post office. It will officially be the eighth address in Germany for letters send to Santa or the Christkind.
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