SCRANTON, Pa. -- A microscope. A new puppy. A mother. And absolutely, positively NO CLOTHES.
From the humorous to the heart-wrenching, children's wish lists to Santa reveal that children aren't as toy-centric as parents think -- and that they're not as polite as perhaps they should be.
Carole Slotterback, a psychology professor at the University of Scranton, analyzed nearly 1,200 letters sent between 1998 and 2003 to the central post office in Scranton, a struggling former coal city in northeastern Pennsylvania.
The missives were scrawled or painstakingly handwritten on every type of paper and in every shade of ink. Many were decorated with drawings, stickers or glitter; some children gave Santa not only their addresses but their phone numbers, parents' cell phone numbers and their school pictures -- just to make sure the Big Guy knew how to find them on Christmas.
Slotterback, who describes her findings in the book "The Psychology of Santa," said the letters "touched me in so many different ways."
"Some are just absolutely a stitch, and others are some of the saddest things I've ever read," she said.
One kid asked to be an elf. Another made a list that included Pokemon cards, a camera and a microscope. But about every third item, the child wrote: "NO clothes."
And then there was the one written in careful cursive on bright pink paper, in which Santa was asked for perhaps the greatest gift of all: a mom.
"Not just for me but my daddy, brother and granny ... my daddy works so hard and then he comes home to cook and clean and it should be easier," the letter read.
The child drew a 5-cent "stamp" on the envelope before dropping it in the mailbox.
The U.S. Postal Service receives hundreds of thousands of letters to Santa each year, with increases during tough economic times, said spokeswoman Sue Brennan.
None of them make it to the North Pole. But some do get responses through Operation Santa; about 500,000 letters in New York City alone were answered last year by individuals, companies and postal employees, Brennan said.
Some are funny -- one asked Santa to check the appropriate box: Real or not real? -- but many more are not, she said.
"I've never gone 5 or 10 minutes without getting teary," said Brennan. "It's very emotional."
Children who sent letters instead of lists were generally more polite and chatty, for instance asking about Mrs. Claus, Slotterback said.
Except for the death threat. One child wrote: "Dear Santa, I am going to kill you and steal the toys from your workshop." Slotterback reported it to the postmaster, who agreed to contact people at the return address, which she believes was a juvenile facility.
The letters also show kids are sensitive to current events. In 2001, just months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, children's letters were very patriotic, Slotterback said. Kids drew pictures of Santa's sleigh with American flags hanging off the back, and of St. Nick putting flags in stockings; they also asked for fewer toys that year, she found.
And there was no indication that children feared the terrorists would get Santa, she said.
"Terrorists can do all kinds of things to our world, and they can hurt us in many ways, but one thing they can't do is touch Santa," said Slotterback. "And that was nice to see."
Overall, between 3 percent and 6 percent of letters had what Slotterback called "family requests," such as for a sick grandmother to get better or for Mom and Dad to stop fighting.
She suggested parents ask to see their kids' wish lists, because they might be surprised at what is -- and what's not -- on it. Requests are often "simpler kids of things than you might think," Slotterback said.
But she noted a surprising lack of social niceties in the correspondence, unless the child was asking for a pet. A boy who asked for a golden retriever used "please" 16 times, she said. The next-highest use came from a girl who wanted a horse.
Slotterback cited other research that found people who expect their requests to be fulfilled -- like a boss asking an employee to do something -- are less likely to say please. Perhaps likewise, she said, kids expect Santa to come through.
Still, she said, "you'd think if you were asking for a lot of presents, you would throw in a 'please' or a 'thank you."'
USPS Operation Santa Claus: www.operationlettertosanta.com
University of Scranton: www.scranton.edu