As part of the "Letters to Santa" program, firefighters are asking children to write and drop off letters to the jolly old elf himself at any fire station by Dec. 3.
Children will receive a reply from "Santa" (aka a firefighter) with a postmark from the North Pole (Alaska).
Jon Matsumoto, a float firefighter with the fire department, started the program a few years ago for families in the department. He got a "pretty good response from parents,"
he said, noting that it gave them an opportunity to sit down with their young children and gauge what was on their wish lists. Most children ask for specific things, such as UGG boots, he said.
Last year the department received about 70 letters on Santa's behalf.
"The kids get a reply and keep the image of Santa and Christmas going: 'Oh, there really is a North Pole.' It's a small thing kids kind of enjoy," he said.
Sometimes he hears directly from both children and parents who've had a challenging year. That's when Letters to Santa turns from a fun holiday program to something of deeper significance.
"I remember a letter last year where a girl wrote that they didn't have a Christmas tree and lights. It was a real tough Christmas for them," Matsumoto said.
"For us it identified truly needy families in Palo Alto. We took up a collection amongst the Palo Alto fire family and were able to go out and pick up a donated tree and lights," he said. They also provided grocery gift cards and some presents.
"It was a very heartwarming experience for us to reach out and touch a family in need," he said.
He also received an email from a parent who was laid off and hadn't worked in months, asking for help. He suggested that people with specific needs email him at Jon.Matsumoto@CityofPaloAlto.org.
The fire department is partnering with Palo Alto Firefighters Charitable Fund to raise money to meet some of those urgent needs.
The Letters to Santa program is open to all Palo Alto residents and city employees. Parents are asked to supply the child's full name; home address; boy or girl; a present that he/she would like; and an email or phone number if verification of receipt of the letter is wanted.
Although the goal of the program is to help parents identify their child's wish list, the firefighters would like to reach more needy families this year, Matsumoto said.
By opening the program up to the community at large, Letters to Santa helps people "get connected with the fire department," he said. Parents can even walk their kids down to the nearest fire station to drop the letters off.
"It sets the tone for another tradition that comes up on a yearly basis. Anything that extends their believing in Santa and Christmas is good for me," Matsumoto said.