Starry-eyed children writing letters to the jolly man at the North Pole this holiday season will probably not get a response from Santa Claus or his helpers.

The U.S. Postal Service is dropping a popular national program begun in 1954 in the small Alaska town of North Pole, where volunteers open and respond to thousands of letters addressed to Santa each year. Replies come with North Pole postmarks.

Last year, a postal worker in Maryland recognized an Operation Santa volunteer there as a registered sex offender. The postal worker interceded before the individual could answer any letters, but the Postal Service viewed the episode as a big enough scare to tighten rules in such programs nationwide.

People in North Pole are incensed by the change, likening the Postal Service to the Grinch trying to steal Christmas. The letter program is a revered holiday tradition in North Pole, where light posts are curved and striped like candy canes and streets have names such as Kris Kringle Drive and Santa Claus Lane.

Volunteers in the letter program even sign the response letters as Santa’s elves and helpers.

North Pole’s mayor, Doug Isaacson, agreed caution is necessary to protect children. But he said he is outraged North Pole’s program should be affected by a sex offender’s actions on the East Coast, and he thinks it is wrong that locals just learned of the change.

“It’s Grinch-like that the Postal Service never informed all the little elves before the fact,’’ he said. “They’ve been working on this for how long?’’

The Postal Service began restricting its policies in such programs in 2006, including requiring volunteers to show identification.

But the Maryland incident involving the sex offender prompted more changes, even forcing the agency to suspend briefly the Operation Santa program last year in New York and Chicago before reinstating it with the same restrictions implemented nationwide this year.

The agency now prohibits volunteers from having access to children’s family names and addresses, spokeswoman Sue Brennan said. The Postal Service instead redacts the last name and addresses on each letter and replaces the addresses with codes that match computerized addresses known only to the post office – and leaves it up to local managers if they want to go through the time-consuming effort to shield the information. Brennan said no one is barred from continuing their programs, but they have to comply with the rules.

Pamela Moody, an agency spokeswoman in Anchorage, said dealing with the tighter restrictions is not feasible in Alaska.

“It’s always been a good program, but we’re in different times and concerned for the privacy of the information,’’ she said.

Moody stressed that children can still send letters to Santa Claus.

The Postal Service still runs the larger Operation Santa Program, in which children can have their letters to Santa answered.