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The Santa Claus Man

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A History of Santa Letters

Posted on December 04, 2015

“My pals say there is no Santa but I just have to believe in him,” writes 12-year-old Wilson Castile Jr., writing to the jolly fellow in 1939. Twelve might seem a bit old to believe in the portly resident of the North Pole. But Wilson, writing from his home in Annapolis, Missouri, seems worthy of extra sympathy. His explains in the letter that his father, a deputy sheriff, was shot and killed by gangsters and his new stepdad “is so mean he never buys me anything.”

Such sad or funny stories are not unusual when reading through Santa letters, going back to the 19th century. Notes sent to Santa are an unlikely lens through which to understand the past, offering a peek into the worries, desires and quirks of the times in which they were written. But as interesting as the children’s notes themselves are the changing ways adults have sought to answer them and their motivations for doing so.

Three new books shine a spotlight on mail addressed for Mr. Claus this season, telling the history of Santa letters from different angles: Letters to Santa , a selection of notes from 1930 to the present, selected from the thousands sent to the Santa Claus Museum in Santa Claus, Indiana (the city where Wilson Castile sent his letter); Dear Santa, which gathers earlier letters dated from 1870–1920; and The Santa Claus Man, my own book, which tells a true-crime tale of a Jazz Age huckster who abused a Santa letter–answering scheme to fill his own stockings with cash.

Together, the books illustrate how children’s requests and perceptions of Santa Claus changed over more than a century and a half. But they also reflect the durability and timelessness of the ritual, and how even when so much else about the world changes, children’s imaginations (and desire for toys) remain a constant.

This might seem surprising considering how the practice of Santa letters began. Early versions of Santa Claus tended to depict him as a disciplinarian. The first image of St. Nicholas in the United States, commissioned by the New-York Historical Society in 1810, showed him in ecclesiastical garb with a switch in hand next to a crying child, while the earliest known Santa picture-book shows him leaving a birch rod in a naughty child’s stocking, which he “Directs a Parent’s hand to use / When virtue’s path his sons refuse.”

The earliest Santa letters are similarly didactic, usually coming from St. Nicholas, rather than written to him. The minister Theodore Ledyard Cuyler recalled receiving “an autograph letter from Santa Claus, full of good counsels” during his childhood in 1820s western New York. In the 1850s, Fanny Longfellow (wife of the poet Henry Wadsworth) wrote her three children letters each Christmas that commented on their behavior over the previous year and how they could improve it.

“[Y]ou have picked up some naughty words which I hope you will throw away as you would sour or bitter fruit,” Santa explained in an 1853 letter. “Try to stop to think before you use any, and remember if no one else hears you God is always near.” In an era before childhood was celebrated as a distinct period of a person’s life, gratifying kids’ imaginations was less important than teaching them manners that would speed them toward adulthood.

Read the rest at Smithsonian.

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