By Yeh Chen and Matthew Mazzetta, CNA staff writers
If you write a letter to Santa in Taiwan, chances are that you are writing to Cathy, a Taiwanese art teacher and mother of three who has received and replied to thousands of the Christmas greetings in recent years through her project "Taiwan Santa Claus."
It all began quite simply, she says, with the idea of giving children in Taiwan someone to write to, without having to participate in one of the "Write to Santa" programs abroad.
In the first year, she set up a Facebook fan page and received 500 letters. In the two years that followed -- 1,000 and 1,500.
Now in her fourth year -- thanks to a boost from recent media coverage -- Cathy's project has exploded in scale, with over 25,000 letters arriving through mid-December.
To meet the demand, Cathy and her friends have set up a workshop worthy of Father Christmas himself, where they spend hours responding to every single letter with a hand-written reply.
Though it is something that would maybe only occur to children, the practice of mailing letters to Santa is in fact a worldwide phenomenon.
Pierre Goulange, a counselor at the French Office in Taipei, told CNA that in France, Santa receives between one and two million letters every year.
To manage this glut, Goulange said the French postal service employs an office staff of 25 people during the two months leading up to Christmas, whose sole job is replying to children's letters.
The U.S. postal service has similar programs in place, according to American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) spokeswoman Amanda Mansour.
One such service, "North Pole Postmark," allows parents to send their children's letters, along with a reply from "Santa," to a North Pole PO box in Anchorage, Alaska.
From this southern Alaska city, Santa's helpers return the letter with an official "North Pole" postmark -- albeit, on the condition that the parents have enclosed a First-Class Mail stamp covering return postage.
Another program, "Operation Santa," allows charitable organizations and individuals to "adopt" letters that needy children have sent to Santa, mailing them gifts, which their families could not otherwise afford.
In the absence of such government support, however, the role of Santa Claus has fallen to Cathy, while the Beitou Mingde Post Office, where she picks up her letters, serves in a pinch as a Taiwanese North Pole.
Cathy said she originally considered taking a break this year, but didn't want to disappoint all the children who wrote to her.
Reading aloud from some of the letters, she marvels at their openness and sincerity:
"Santa, I used to cry a lot, but now I'm much better. Can you forgive me?"
"Santa, I want a picture of you. That way I'll know if it's really you, or just my teacher returning this letter."
"Santa, I don't believe you exist, but I like that you help little children."
The topics can range from the latest tablet computers to kids' requests that their parents stop fighting about money, Cathy said, adding that she often feels like a child psychologist as she composes her replies.
A considerable number of letters come from abroad -- the most from Russia, interestingly -- whose writers, Cathy suspects, take pleasure in the Taiwanese stamps and postmarks, as well as the beauty of the handwritten Chinese on the cards.
Most of the letters are written by Taiwanese children who write to Santa in Chinese, so Cathy replies in the local language, but when she receives letters in English, she replies in English.
With Christmas approaching, Cathy and her friends are working overtime to get through the last of the letters, while a notice on her Facebook page offers reassurance to those still waiting for a response: If you wrote to Santa, it says, "we will definitely reply."
Next year, she says, whether it means setting up an association or inviting college students to join her as volunteers, she's going to have to hire some more elves.