Writing letters to Santa Claus is a holiday tradition. Perhaps you sat down with a plate of cookies, a glass of milk, and your wish list. With a fresh piece of paper and favorite pen, you compose a letter to the holly, jolly Saint Nick. Maybe you asked for a bicycle, new doll, or, like me, a stack of books. When you were done, you addressed it to Santa Claus at the North Pole, slapped a Christmas stamp on it, and ran to the nearest mailbox. With child-like exuberance you hoped some of your holiday wishes would come true. The history of sending Santa Claus letters spans over 150 years in the United States. While the exact moment it started is unknown, letters to Santa and its relationship with the U.S. postal service is a fascinating story for this time of year!
For various people in various places during various times in history, Santa Claus went by many names. Additionally, the essence of “Santa Claus” meant something different. The Santa Claus we know – the holly, jolly man in the red suit who delivered gifts and decides who is naughty or nice – is a variation on Clement Moore’s 1823 poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” (originally titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas”). Moore’s infamous poem helped solidify the idea of who and what Santa Claus was in the United States. Prior to this, it varied greatly among the population. While the poem described the essence of the man in the red suit, cartoonist Thomas Nast put a picture to the description and created a modern image of Santa Claus in the 1860s. Contracted by Harper’s Weekly, Nast drew a series of illustrations depicting the holly, jolly man with big rosy cheeks who spread Christmastime cheer to the nation’s children.
Soon, children began writing their wishes in letters to the man in the red suit. The U.S. Postal Service stated that, “[o]ne popular early method of mailing letters to Santa was to put them in the chimney, because smoke was believed to magically transport wishes to the North Pole. But by the 1890s many children were putting greater faith in the Post Office Department.” As the general public’s trust in the Postal Service increase, children turned to post offices to deliver their letters to Santa.
Children around the country wrote letters and addressed them to Santa Claus at the North Pole. Technically, these letters were undeliverable as they failed to have a street, zip code – basically a correct address on it. The standard policy was to return the letter to the sender or, if that did not work, send them to the Dead Letter Office in Washington, D.C. This policy was restated in the December 10, 1906 issue of the New York Times. The article lamented that “[t]he Post Office Department does not believe in Santa Claus” and since the person does note exist “all the hundreds and thousands of letters from trusting children that every year find their way into the Post Office boxes at this season are gathered unsympathetically together and forwarded to the Dead Letter Office.” Once there, “it falls to their lot to open and examine all these communications to Santa, so that if money is by any chance contained in them it may be returned to the sender, if the address can be determined. After that they are all destroyed.”
While this seems quite heartless and Grinch-like, this policy was not always followed through on a national, state, or local level. Some clerks and post office workers made sure that little girls and boys did not became disheartened when their “Dear Santa” letters came back as unmailable. According to the U.S. Post Office, it was said that clerks at the Dead Letter Office in the mid-1890s would allow charities or a “rich old man” access to letters so the children’s requests could be fulfilled.
Additionally, some postmasters at the state or local levels chose not to forward these letters to the Dead Letter Office as per policy. The following story shows exactly this instance and is detailed by the U.S. Postal Service:
In 1894 Harris Eames, a postmaster in Connecticut, engineered a Christmas miracle for a seven-year old child in his community after opening a letter to “Sandy Clous” mailed by a girl he knew named Fannie. Fannie had asked Santa to please visit her house because he had not done so the previous year – she included elaborate directions and listed each of her brothers and sisters and their ages. Eames knew Fannie’s family had fallen upon hard times but had not realized how profoundly. He was so touched by the girl’s simple plea that he immediately shared the letter with the town’s business owners, each of whom wanted to contribute. With only two days until Christmas and in a rush of organized activity, donations were taken, gifts purchased, and agreement obtained from the girl’s somewhat embarrassed mother for a Christmas Eve surprise.
In 1907, the Postmaster General decided to give official permission for postmasters to distribute “Dear Santa” letters to charities. This was short-lived as various charities complained that the massive amount of letters overwhelmed their small budgets and staffing, the Postmaster General decided not to renew the permission the next year. On November 1, 1911, Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock once again gave postmasters permission to give letters to charities and interested individuals looking to spread a little holiday cheer. This soon became a yearly event in which some charities called “Operation Santa Claus”. [Informally, it is believed that New York City’s “Operation Santa Claus started in the early 1920s.]
Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock’s authorization is still in effect to this day. The only difference is that not every interested party is able to have access to these letters for privacy reasons. In 2006, guidelines were added to the U.S. Postal Service policy regarding “Dear Santa” letters to protect the identities and specific information of children and families. Those who wish to help fulfill the Christmas wishes and take on Santa letters are required to have a photo identification and fill out paperwork regarding the details of the letters and the person doing the ‘adopting’.
These guidelines became even stricter in 2009 “by blacking out all references to the child’s address, assigning the letter a number, and providing a redacted copy of the letter to the individual interested in adopting it. The volunteer who selects the letter brings a gift for the child back to the Post Office to present to a postal employee. Postal employees weigh the package, collect the postage from the volunteer, and then apply a mailing label and mail the package without the volunteer ever seeing the child’s address.”
New York Times, “Want to Play Santa Claus,” December 10, 1906.
Operation Letters to Santa
United States Postal Service, “Letters to Santa program“.
United States Postal Service Historian, “Santa Letters: Gateway to Kindness,” January 2013.
“Writing a Letter to Santa [Letter],” Children and Youth in History, Item #339.