I have memories of writing to Santa Claus and letting him know what I wanted for Christmas. Interesting to me, I remember the writing, not what I asked for. I think this is because I learned that just because you asked for something, it didn’t mean you would get it.
If you were to pitch this idea today to Hollywood (or its equivalent), I suspect it would be a hard sell. Older white guy who may or may not be homeless, goes around people’s homes at night dressed funny, leaving packages. Says he likes to eat cookies and drink milk, but prefers Coke. Is in an apparently stable traditional marriage with an older woman, but has no kids. Employs possible H-1-V violators or undocumented workers producing unregulated materials for world-wide distribution. Works with endangered species, which he uses as dray animals once a year. Receives a lot of mail during December each year.
There is a certain reassurance that such a character survived all these generations and continues to bring wide-eyed joy to children, especially in these days of politic and social upheaval. Santa’s promises are clear and simple. Someone, somewhere, cares about you. If you do good things, there is a greater likelihood that you will receive acknowledgement or even presents. Giving is a way to feel good. These reflect, in many ways, the legacy of St. Nicolas of Myra, whose life is credited with being the template for Santa Claus. It is possible that he became affiliated with what we now celebrate as Christmas because he died on December 6th – near enough to Winter Solstice.
The Santa Claus we see in our mind’s eye, however, is due to the imagination and skill of one German-American cartoonist: Thomas Nast. He was born in Germany, but emigrated here with this family in the late 1840’s, along with many other educated and politically-active revolutionaries who were forced to leave Germany after the Revolution of 1848. Nast’s family settled in New York City. By the age of 18, Nast had made reputation for himself as a caricaturist and found work illustrating for several of the leading papers of the day. His career spanned the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the rise and fall of Tammany Hall, where he played a role in indicting the corrupt politicians and bringing them to justice using the power of the press and his political cartoons. Ironically, he died on December 7, 1902. The day after St. Nicholas’s death.
Nast first drew Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly in 1862. He continued to draw Santa Claus for over 30 years, making minor changes including an increase in his girth and changing the color of his outfit to the brilliant red we associate with Santa today. There are unverified stories that Nast also planted Santa Claus at the North Pole, thereby giving children everywhere a permanent address to write to.
The United States Post office has been managing letters to Santa for over 100 years. According to its factsheet:
In 1912 Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock authorized local Postmasters to allow postal employees and citizens to respond to the letters — a program that eventually became known as Operation Santa.
In the 1940s, mail volume for Santa increased so much that the Postal Service invited charitable organizations and corporations to participate by providing written responses and small gifts.
Through the years, the program grew and took on a life of its own. Today, customers can go online to browse through the letters and if one touches them, they can adopt it and help the child have a magical holiday.
. . . Only letters addressed to a specific North Pole address — complete with correct ZIP Code — are sent there. The vast majority of letters for Santa Claus are addressed “Santa Claus, North Pole” or just simply “Santa” — these letters are processed just like all the other letters, but because they do not have a complete address, the Postal Service mail sorting equipment processes them into a default area. The default letters are then sorted — mail that might have been incorrectly addressed is taken one place and the Santa letters to another place.
What is remarkable to me is how potent this figure is. Whether we write letters to an imaginary toy-maker who lives in the North Pole or recall standing in long lines to visit him at his workshop conveniently located at the Mall or in a local department store, his promises continue to be kept.
I am getting my letter to Santa out late this year, but I hope (since I am using email) it will reach him in plenty of time:
I’ve been a good girl this year. I will try to do better next year. I have been thinking a lot about you, Mrs. Claus and the reindeer. I understand things at the North Pole are changing because of climate change. One of the things I am asking for this year is courage for all the elected officials so that they can pass the laws needed to make sure the reindeer have enough food. I am also asking for people to be kinder to each other. There has been a lot of shouting and angry words this year. It’s awfully hard to be heard when someone is shouting at me. If you have a chance, I would very much like for you to help lonely people not feel all alone. It would be great if you could spread smiles to people’s hearts and ask them to let the smiles out. I also want you to help people to stop being afraid. Being afraid they will lose what they have and being afraid that someone else will take what they have, or being afraid because where they live isn’t safe. I hope this isn’t asking too much. I know how busy you are and how hard you work. The last thing I am asking for this year is peace. I know I ask for it every year, and every year I hope you will be able to bring it. Maybe this year you can?
The cookies and milk will be waiting for you when you come. I will also put out some carrots for the reindeer. Merry Christmas, Santa, and thank you!