In the weeks before Christmas, Santa Claus' North Tonawanda substation did its best to answer hundreds of letters and channel his wisdom, love and cheer.
Some needed more Kris Kringle-inspired magic than others.
"I wrote you a letter last year. I asked for a Santa suit for my guinea pig, but I don't know why I didn't get one."
"Doesn't Santa live in the North Pole, not on 500 Wheatfield Street?"
"I have been pretty good this year. But I have been kind of bad. So I probably don't deserve a lot of presents. So here are some of the things that I would like "
Luckily for the young writers, Pam Hogan knows her way around a letter to Old St. Nick.
In the weeks before Christmas, Hogan's regular job as recreation and senior citizen coordinator expands to include handling Santa mail.
It's an unusual municipal service and local tradition that is advertised in school and newspaper notices. This year, it attracted more letters, and oddly, more from farther away than usual. Compared with last year's 200, some of this year's 300 came from addresses well beyond city boundaries -- from Amherst, Niagara Falls and Williamsville to Jamestown, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas.
"Maybe the grandparents live in North Tonawanda and they're letting their grandchildren know," Hogan said. "It's just a small portion of my job, but it's a good portion. It would be a nice program for any city to pick up, because it would certainly lighten my load."
Children asked for hot toys -- Pillow Pets, Nintendo DS video games -- and old-fashioned and idiosyncratic gifts like dolls, "a friend," a stand-up mixer in cobalt blue for mom, and "p.s. Can you please make me some surprises?"
Instead of "dumb, old toys" one girl wanted a "medium, fun-loving dog" that doesn't bark or bite or need potty training. But it "doesn't have to be perfect."
Serious topics shifted this year: Fewer wrote about wanting parents home from Afghanistan and Iraq, as they did last year. But more were out of work.
"My mommy lost her job, and all I am asking for -- if you can, please send me anything you'll give me," said a girl who said she was writing because she wanted to have a "great Christmas this year."
"That's always sad," said Hogan. "There's things that Santa can't fix. We'll say something like, 'We'll spread the Christmas magic, and maybe the new year will be better for their family.' "
While Hogan, a former alderwoman, considers Santa letters one of the North Tonawanda taxpayer benefits, the American habit of writing Santa letters has spawned a few options. Send $10 to the Santa Claus House, a store in North Pole, which is really a small city outside Fairbanks, Alaska, and get a personalized letter back, complete with words you can write yourself at santaclaushouse.com.
To any letter with a return address, postal workers will mail a cheerful generic reply -- "Mrs. Claus and I love reading letters. We decorate the elves' bunk house and the reindeers' barn with them."
Some local postal offices -- Grand Island, Hamburg, Sanborn -- do take time with individual letters. Angola, which has a little black Santa letter box in the lobby, averages 80 letters a year, said Cheryl Wilson, the officer in charge.
Highlights include the little girl who didn't ask for presents but just wanted Santa to know her brother kicked her. A Santa ornament made out of heart stickers with "I love you" written on it came in a letter and is now stuck to someone's desk.
"It makes December go a little easier," said Wilson. "When you have a break, you can actually just sit down and answer a child's letter."
As a girl growing up in North Tonawanda, Hogan remembers getting an exciting phone call from Santa with the sound of bells in the background. That was an old municipal tradition that lasted about 35 years, she said. For the last eight or so years, the city has sent letters.
Now in her second year managing the Santa letters, Hogan, 43, used her experience as a mother of two grown children to craft replies and ponder amusingly juxtaposed requests.
A girl made her smile with, "Could I please have a doughnut and a piano?"
A boy who wanted a frog, paint, a cat and glue, was a bit of a worry. "It's like, 'Oh, OK, and what do you plan to do with those things?' " said Hogan.
Hogan gets some help from her Senior Center and Recreation Department staff when they aren't organizing Thursday bingo or teaching exercise class.
They helped come up with "substation" as an answer to the girl who wanted to know why she was writing to Santa on Wheatfield Street. And they laughed about her answer to the guinea pig suit query. She thought of her own experience with those pets that eat everything when she wrote this:
"I remember trying to find one, but I couldn't. I then was going to have the elves make one, but they thought the guinea pig might eat it. The elves thought it wouldn't be healthy."
To the child who asked Santa not to overwork the elves -- "That was a classic" -- she explained the generous union guidelines, breaks, lunch and a lot of vacation.
For the sister who didn't believe, Hogan said simply, "I am real. Show this letter to your sister."
An organized boy cut out Walmart ads and taped and numbered each one on a two-page list. He went from 1. $44.99 Lego City Police Bank to 21. $139 Razor eSpark Electric Scooter and a finale in pencil: "23. a lot of Pokemon cards."
Hogan thanked him. "The ads really help because Santa sometimes gets confused."
When another wondered if Hermey the elf from the "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" television Christmas special still wanted to be a dentist, she assured the ambition stuck: "I am happy about that, because the elves could use another dentist."
She writes knowing that real correspondence thrills kids. Replies go on stationery printed with a parchment scroll design and a reindeer food recipe card -- oats, sugar, red and green sugar crystals. Her Santa tells children he posts their pictures on the fridge and that he's proud of them when they say they're doing well in school. He encourages better instincts -- "Thank you for being good all year."
Hogan calls Santa's mysterious power and goodness "Christmas magic." It helps answer queries about how the rotund Saint Nicholas manages to slide down skinny chimneys. It also works to suggest how kids can still feel happy when what's under the tree doesn't match the letter lists.
"Since I have Christmas magic, I know you will enjoy everything you receive," she wrote to the girl who wanted three kinds of My Little Pony dolls. ("Wow! That certainly is a lot of toys.")
Hogan believes the mail that leaves her office delivers another kind of Christmas magic, too. A child's imagining of elves who make guinea pig Santa suits, a Christmas made perfect with a doughnut and a piano and some Play Station games, even after fighting with a brother, is part of what makes childhood sweet.
A Santa letter from North Tonawanda that seems real may just make its power last a little bit longer.
"There's nothing wrong," said Hogan, "with believing in a little bit of magic."