Santa Claus is often considered a one-man-band when it comes to delivering the holiday spirit.
But while his contributions to making the season merry and bright can’t be overstated, the Jolly old elf gets a lot of help from a workshop much farther south: the U.S. federal government in Washington.
This time of year, government agencies are hard at work supplementing the economic and operational obligations the holiday season brings. From issuing product advisories on the latest toys to making deployed service members feel at home and ensuring safe travel, federal agencies and the U.S. military embrace their part in making the holidays fun and safe.
Here are a few ways the feds are decking the halls this year.
U.S. Postal Service
For more than a century, the U.S. Postal Service has been ensuring children’s letters to Santa make it safely to 123 Elf Road at the North Pole.
The project allows the public to “adopt” a real letter sent to Santa and fulfill the wishes within by shipping a gift, or a response, to the child. Thousands of letters are sent and received each year anonymously, the agency told Federal Times.
This also was the first year the program began before before Black Friday.
“The enhancements that we’ve made over the years have really tied into the protection and safety of children’s [personal identifiable information],” said Chris Karpenko, executive director of brand marketing at USPS. “One of the things that we did is, instead of just opening up the letters and putting them out to the public, we actually redact them. We digitized some of this, as well.”
The initiative first began on a much smaller scale in 1912, when then-Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock authorized employees to open letters addressed to Santa and respond to them. Then, in the 1940s, the program expanded to include volunteer “elves” from the public.
“It was completely grassroots when it started,” Karpenko said. “It was organic. No one ever formalized it, in the sense that it just started to happen. The Postal Service enables it, but there’re so many Americans out there that want to do good and want to want to help each other.”
Department of Defense
American Forces Network
For service members and civilians overseas, American Forces Network rocks around the clock.
Based out of California, the military’s 24/7 global radio and television service broadcasts 75 holiday movies and 24 stations of festive songs this time of year to Americans stationed abroad or at sea to make them feel at home, said Jim Alexander, director of AFN’s Broadcast Center.
AFN began in 1942 when the then-War Department established the program to give service members “a touch of home” and provide programming, shortwave service and broadcast equipment to U.S. military locations overseas.
In the years that followed, despite some downsizing to radio, the program grew to include live news and sports satellite broadcasts in the 1960s and color television in the 70s. Today, it includes on-demand streaming services that make entertainment portable.
“It’s a testament to wanting to feel connected, especially to the country that you serve and that cultural connection that you have when you’re thousands of miles away,” said Kim Antos, AFN’s chief of digital programming.
The military services also organize themed events.
For example, the Marine Corps’ Quantico branch is slated to distribute more than 145,000 toys to 125,000 children via the Toys for Tots program. And the Air Force and partner nations came together for Operation Christmas Drop, which brings essential supplies to remote communities in the Pacific.
Consumer Product Safety Commission
Igniting Christmas trees
If you’ve been on the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s social media lately, you’ve probably seen footage of the “forbidden” Yule log: a burning e-scooter set to holiday instrumentals.
You might also have seen memes about exploding turkeys, age-inappropriate gifts and fires caused by Christmas lights and candles.
The regulatory agency works to inform U.S. consumers of product safety hazards, and is especially busy this time of year informing the public about product recalls and common dangers that can arise from using certain goods improperly.
“Obviously the holidays are a very busy time of year — everyone’s being inundated with messages,” said Joe Galbo, social media specialist at CPSC. “How do [you] remind folks to keep safety top of mind? Of course, you want to do it in a way that’s very visual.”
CPSC also conducts its own product tests at its “fire lab” in Maryland. Galbo said that in some years, staff dress up a Christmas tree and create a realistic set to demonstrate how dry pine boughs can be a potential fire hazard.
“The tree is obviously a really, really spectacular way of showing folks, ‘Hey, here’s what can happen when everything goes wrong,’” Galbo said. “For us, it’s about letting people know, whether it’s cooking or it’s home decorating, keep this in mind.”
North American Aerospace Defense Command
Congress may not have been able to get its budget in order in time for Christmas, but that won’t stop Santa Claus from being “on time” and “in place” this year, said Pentagon Press Secretary Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder at a press conference.
Like many good traditions, this one began unexpectedly. The story says that in 1955, a child dialed a number listed in the local newspaper that she believed would connect her to Santa’s workshop.
The number actually belonged to the Continental Air Defense Command’s operations center in Colorado. A colonel on duty picked up the phone, and in the spirit of the holidays, assured the child that Santa was on his way safely.
North American Aerospace Defense Command’s annual tradition of tracking Santa is a joy for children and families who want to follow along in real time with Santa’s sleigh.
The website is available in nine languages, including English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Chinese, and new this year, Korean, according to the command.
Transportation Security Agency
You may have seen the signs around airports in the Washington, D.C.-metro area: “snow globes of any size are not allowed to be carried through the airport security checkpoint.”
“We know that snow globes are a traditional type of holiday gift, which is why we are sharing information on traveling with snow globes at this time of year,” said Lisa Farbstein, a spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration.
Even with the busiest travel days of the holiday season yet to come, TSA already logged a record-breaking number of passenger screenings in a single day during Thanksgiving.
So, say Aunt Bethany gifted you another snow globe this year. How do you know it surpasses the legal liquid limit?
“If it’s larger than a tennis ball, it likely is greater than the 3.4-ounce limit,” said Farbstein.
And if the eggnog got to your brain and you forgot your XXL snow globe in your carry-on, TSA won’t automatically confiscate it. Mail it home, check it, put it in your car, or voluntarily surrender it to TSA. (And then don’t tell Aunt Bethany. You’ll get another one next year, anyhow.)
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.