What could be more innocent than a letter to Santa? A child jotting down her heart’s desires in pencil or crayon and dropping it in the mailbox, naively hoping the wish will be granted by Christmas morning: It’s a tradition that goes back at least to the mid-1800s, and it is a reminder of the holiday’s more idyllic past.
These days, such letters are viewed as an opportunity to help the less fortunate. In many cities across the U.S., the Postal Service makes available Santa letters to groups or individuals who want to fulfill the wishes enclosed within. It’s a small gesture, multiplied hundreds of thousands of times a year, that brings joy to both the giver and the recipient. What harm could come from that?
Oh, just teaching kids to beg, cheat, and lie—at least, that was the conventional wisdom of charity groups in the early 1900s. As such, the Post Office Department, now known as the U.S. Postal Service, found itself in the middle of a wild confrontation between a press and public that never failed to find delight in a note opening with “Dear Santy,” and groups that claimed Santa letters were the product of con artists in training.
“The Post Office Department does not believe in Santa Claus,” lamented the New York Times in a 1906 article about the government policy that undeliverable mail—including letters addressed to a certain chubby, sleigh-riding fellow—be sent to the dead letter office and destroyed. “So the letters remain undelivered and the requests unresponded to, and Saint Nick overlooks thousands of children just because he has not received their petitions.”
Who was running the post office, Ebenezer Scrooge?
Actually, Postmaster General George von Lengerke Meyer. And as Christmas 1907 approached, he grew sick of all the sniping from newspapers, philanthropic societies, and individuals concerned about his lack of holiday spirit. On Dec. 14, 1907, Meyer announced he would allow the letters to be answered from that day until the end of the year. For the first time ever, Santa (or at least charity groups approved by their local post offices) would open his mail.
Despite having little time to organize, groups sprouted up from Philadelphia to San Francisco to answer the Christmas wishes. Newspapers reprinted letters from local children, including every misspelled word and heartwarming request—a teddy bear, doll, or buggy—exactly as it had been written.
As sweet as these ragtag efforts to answer Santa’s mail might have been, there was little consistency from one operation to the next. Some verified whether the children really needed gifts or whether they had sent duplicate letters, but most did not. Some provided only basic necessities, while others gave extravagant toys. In some cities, multiple would-be Santas surfaced and fought for the right to wear the fur-lined cap and deliver the gifts personally.
Meanwhile, professional relief institutions looked on in alarm. Groups such as the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, the Children’s Aid Society, and the Charity Organization Society had been in the business of helping needy kids for decades and employed a cool-headed, businesslike approach to the work. The rank inefficiency of relieving poverty through kids’ scrawls to a mythical toymaker gave them heart palpitations.
But the real danger, according to these groups, was that encouraging impressionable kids to write to Santa would teach them to exaggerate their needs or lie outright in order to get better presents.
W.F. Persons, superintendent of the New York Charity Organization Society, or COS, wrote to Meyer that, after reviewing some letters, he found they “were written obviously for the sole purpose of attracting attention and securing charitable assistance.” In all likelihood, the kids’ devious parents or older siblings coached them into inventing some pathetic story to ensure the generosity of the gullible public, Persons claimed. When the gifts arrived, there would be no turning the youngsters from a life of conniving.
To prove his point, Persons applied his investigative approach for sniffing out charity fakers, refined by COS during its 25 years in operation, to these dubious cases: He set his volunteers loose on the letter writers.
“Dear Santa,” pleaded Lizzie Cleary in a letter published by the New York World. “Would you please give me something for Christmas, as we are very poor and have no papa? My mamma works downtown in offices and sometimes she takes in washing and does the best she can. You see, Santa, it is very hard for me also, for I get up very early and have to send my sister and brothers to school. I don’t care for much so long as my mamma and sister and brothers has a happy Christmas.”
A likely story, thought the COS inspector who dropped in on little Lizzie and found that her family was hardly as impoverished as the child led Santa to believe. There was “no evidence of want,” the unmoved inspector sniffed in her report, noting that she “saw a doll which belonged to the little girl.” No need for Santa—at least not a publicly funded Santa—to visit Lizzie’s house, the inspector concluded.
In one case after another, volunteer investigators found letter writers who had supposedly exaggerated their need or who already received assistance from an established charity. COS submitted its findings to Meyer, who was persuaded by the evidence and the arguments to make a change.
“Complaints having been received from many charitable organizations of abuses of the privilege … permitting delivery to such organizations of letters addressed to ‘Santa Claus,’ the privilege will not be renewed at this time,” Meyer wrote in an order to his department in the midst of the 1908 Christmas season.
But this action only intensified emotions around Santa letters. Newspapers returned to flogging the Post Office Department for destroying Santa’s mail, and for the next few Christmases, they complained anew about this draconian policy.
Meyer’s successor, Frank Harris Hitchcock, tried to stay above the accusations of government cruelty and counteraccusations of youthful dishonesty. But in 1911, after the post office’s policy received a particularly blistering media backlash, Hitchcock decided to change the story. In order “that many poor children may be blessed with a happy Christmas,” he decided to release the letters “and thereby assist in prolonging their youthful belief in Santa Claus.”
While Hitchcock’s show of Christmas spirit earned him praise from the press, relief societies took umbrage. General Secretary Francis McLean of the National Association of Societies for Organizing Charity drafted a letter to Hitchcock. “Grave harm resulted from the public use of these letters by private individuals, charitable agencies, and by newspapers in 1907,” he wrote, entreating the postmaster general to reverse his decision.
But Hitchcock had a sharp sense of how to manage the media and of what made a great story—just a few weeks earlier he had overseen the country’s first dramatic airmail delivery, which landed him on the front page of papers across the country. Hitchcock was not interested in a debate over the nuances of effective relief work. He just wanted the Post Office Department to be on the right side of Santa.
“To send these appeals to the Dead Letter Office, to be opened and returned to expectant children merely as an empty message, seemed to be a cold and heartless thing, and the Postmaster-General was unwilling to do it,” responded James Britt, the third assistant postmaster general, speaking for his boss. The Post Office Department, like much of the country and the press, had chosen to adopt the sentimental, trusting view of the letter writers.
In the face of such an emotional argument, it was hard for the relief societies to respond without seeming even more “cold and heartless.” McLean wrote back, accepting the Post Office Department’s decision, and adding in a wounded tone that the charity groups were not out to deprive kids of their Christmas wishes but to ensure that only those truly deserving received public support. He accepted defeat.
The positive response generated by reopening Santa’s mailbag made it easy for Hitchcock to release the letters again the next year. In 1913, the Post Office Department made permanent the order allowing the release of Santa letters. For the entire month of December every year, each city’s postmaster would be permitted to release Santa’s mail to any charity groups or individuals of which he approved. (Charities continued to warn against the dangers of such efforts. That very year, COS released a list of “Four Things to Remember” about Santa letters, including “Nine times out of ten the really needy poor do not bring their wants to the attention of the public.”)
That policy remains in place today, with the “Letters to Santa” program, though the U.S. Postal Service has gotten more involved in the process of copying, numbering, and assigning the letters.
So go ahead and answer a letter. Depending on where your holiday spirit lies, you will either brighten an innocent child’s Christmas or start him or her down the road of begging, mail fraud, and a life of crime.