While grade school and even younger children grimace at writing an essay, they exhibit no qualms writing their annual ‘gifts wanted’ letters to the jolly man in the red suit, Santa Claus.
Exactly when this seasonal activity began and such letters were first published in local newspapers, isn’t easy to ascertain. Even Internet sources aren’t specific, although one suggests the practice began unintentionally when parents, needing to learn what gifts their children most wanted, asked them to write ‘Santa’ listing their wants, and then thought the letters were so cute they should share them with their local newspaper.
Young believers in Father Christmas, St. Nicholas, Kris Kringle or simply Santa Claus — take your pick — continue sending him Christmas letters today, but where once they asked the man in red for simple items like sleighs, skates, dolls, candy and nuts, today they request digital-electric gizmos, the demand for which has forced Santa to lay off his old staff of analog elves, replacing them with a new work force composed of digital-age I.T. elves.
On several former occasions, this column has reprinted many of these innocent little letters written way back in our old times, but it has never focused on their impact on both the well-intended newspapers trying to publish as many letters as possible, nor on long-suffering post offices all across the country that had an often difficult time dealing with them.
Perhaps people with the most over-stuffed mailboxes are those who really are named Kris Kringle and yes, there are some.
The Dec. 10, 1903 Daily Leader, for example, had this to say about the glut of Santa letters filling its mailbox:
“Hundreds of letters to Santa Claus have already reached the Leader office and the Santa Claus letter edition promises to be the biggest the Leader has ever published. The letters will be published a few days before Christmas to give Santa plenty of time to arrange his gifts. They must be postmarked by December 19th, and the sooner received, the more likely they will be published.”
The Amsterdam Recorder echoed the Leader, stating it would offer “a Christmas issue with a big colored supplement containing children’s letters to Santa” so there would be no way Santa could claim he didn’t know what gifts Fulton and Montgomery county children wanted for Christmas, if he read both newspapers, that is.
There’s no doubt that small children who earnestly combine all their writing, spelling and wishing skills to share their Christmas toy wants with Santa are true believers, and whether in old times they addressed their letters to the local newspaper or the North Pole via the post office, processing these sincere little letters meant more work for postal workers than children could have imagined.
For all the Santa Claus letters newspapers received, most post offices received more, just when they were handling the greatest number of cards and packages than at any other time of year. What to do with them all?
The Dec. 4, 1891 Daily Leader observed, “That the Leader is popular with the little ones and their mothers is evidenced by the Santa Claus letters received daily.”
That was OK for newspapers, but not for the U.S. Post Office. The first problem was that many Santa letters didn’t carry any deliverable address: They might simply be addressed to “Santa Claus” or “Santa Claus, North Pole,” and if they carried no return address — kids weren’t too good about that — postal regulations classified their little wish lists as unreturnable ‘dead letters’ and destroyed them.
It wasn’t any better if they did have return addresses, because if they did, they’d be stamped “Addressee Unknown” and “Return to Sender” thereby dashing hopes of their little authors that Santa was real, or if he was, that he must have moved since last Christmas without leaving a forwarding address. There was another problem too: Many letters were mailed unstamped, which automatically consigned them to the waste basket.
What to do?
Eventually the Postmaster General did what most regulators do when faced with unsolvable problems: He altered the regulations in 1907.
The Nov. 19, 1919 Morning Herald headlined, “Uncle Sam to Deliver Santa Claus Letters.” Glove cities postmasters have again received the order authorizing them to deliver to responsible local individuals or organizations those letters which children have mailed to Santa Claus.”
This meant weary postal workers could release their bundles of Santa letters into the care of local volunteers to answer them. Various local volunteer groups have participated over the years, and still do.
Radio helped too.
For several decades, Santa sleighed to Schenectady’s WGY studio. The Dec. 20, 1925 Herald announced: “Thousands of letters have been received at the station. Santa will be on the job today starting at 3 o’clock to read them and acknowledge their receipt.”
He read mine over the air several years too, but not in 1925. Hearing my letter read over the radio, I believed by Santa Claus himself, was a great childhood thrill, but I don’t remember him promising to deliver all the goods I asked for.
Today the U.S. Postal Service runs Operation Santa, which “makes it possible for individuals and organizations to adopt these letters and send responses and thoughtful gifts in Santa’s place.”
For a thorough explanation, visit www.USPSOperstionSanta.com or see your local post office’s bulletin board. Maybe you’d enjoy becoming a Santa-proxy volunteer.