Letters to Santa

The history of writing letters to Santa has some strange surprises in store for us. At first, parents would write to their children in the voice of Santa. And when children started writing back, they’d address the letters to simply, “The North Pole.” And that created a problem for the Postal Service.

image of newspaper with article about letters to Santa claus piling up at the post office
Letters to Santa piling up in NYC post offices was front page news in 1912

A customs agent named John Gluck helped the Postal Service match letters to charities. But he had bigger plans too…like building an expensive headquarters building in Manhattan.

image of John Gluck's proposed Manhattan headquarters
John Gluck’s proposed Manhattan headquarters

I also mentioned Operation Santa in this episode, and we heard from Ken, host of the Today’s Tea with Kenny P podcast.

Music in this episode

Episode transcript

Brian Earl 0:00
This episode of Christmas Past discusses Santa Claus in a context that’s not suitable for very young listeners. grownups please enjoy this episode on your own thanks.

Gus Ruiz 0:14
For us, the light is always on. Because when people trust us enough to just drop off their mail and just drive away with no thought of what’s going to happen to it next that tells us they know what’s going to happen.

Brian Earl 0:27
I’m talking to Gus Ruiz about the US Postal Service. He’s the spokesman for the postal service here in the San Francisco Bay Area, and he loves his work.

Gus Ruiz 0:36
Well I love my work. What I consider the real credo the United States Postal Service, and it really bears…

Brian Earl 0:43
Admit it: during the Christmas season, checking the mailbox is part of the emotional arc of your day. It’s like a mini Christmas in itself, with cards arriving in brightly colored envelopes, maybe with stickers and festive rubber stamps and holiday postage stamps on them. Packages arriving that instruct you don’t open till Christmas, or well wishes coming from friends and family and forgotten acquaintances all over the place. Heck, even some of the catalogs are welcome surprises, I’ll bet you never stopped to think about just how much of Christmas wouldn’t be possible without the Postal Service. Americans are responsible for 40% of all the mail sent in the world. And the busiest mailing day of the year, of course falls during the Christmas season. In 2015, the Postal Service processed over 600 million pieces of mail on December 14, and it delivered about 13 billion cards, letters and packages between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. And countless among them, of course, are all of those letters written with an address that simply reads the North Pole. Children have been writing letters to Santa for well over 100 years. But the history of that tradition has a couple of surprises waiting for us, like how it really got started. And where those letters ended up how newspapers lend a helping hand, and how the whole practice was made truly popular by one man who turned out to be one of the most audacious con men in American history. I’m Brian Earl, this is Christmas past

you might be surprised to learn that before children started writing to Santa, he was writing to them.

Nancy Pope 2:28
The correspondence is not from kids to Santa, but from Santa to children, reminding them to be good kids for the year.

Brian Earl 2:35
That’s Nancy Pope, the head curator at the National postal Museum in Washington, DC, it’s part of the Smithsonian Institution.

Nancy Pope 2:43
So you know, Santa wants to make sure that you’re behaving and you’re doing what you need to do this kind of like, you know, look out or type of thing.

Brian Earl 2:51
Evidently, many parents wrote letters to their children in the voice of Santa to comment on their behavior, and to remind them how Santa treats children who don’t behave themselves. Well, it wasn’t long before children got the idea that they could write back in the 1870s, some post offices around the country were receiving letters addressed to Santa,

Nancy Pope 3:11
and there were newspapers that started talking about Santa and saying there was an address, Santa Claus Ville North Pole shows up after the Civil War as an address for Santa.

Brian Earl 3:23
So what were they going to do with all these letters? Well, the rules were really clear. If a piece of mail can’t be delivered, first try to return it to the sender.

Nancy Pope 3:32
And a lot of kids did not use return address, you know, it’s a letter to Santa, you don’t need a return address.

Brian Earl 3:38
And if it can’t be returned to the sender, it would Next go to a place with a really depressing name, the dead letter office.

Nancy Pope 3:46
The function of the dead letter office is to take a letter and try to get it to someone. So if they have to, they open it to find another address, a sender or receiver and then they send it on to somebody. If there’s nobody they could send it on to. It’s destroyed.

Brian Earl 4:04
But rules have a way of getting broken, especially when it’s for a good cause. And definitely when it’s around Christmas time. So some postmasters would just hand these letters over to the town philanthropist, or to one of the charities that expressed an interest in playing Santa. A lot of letters rarely made it out of the town they were sent from other times these letters were sent to a newspaper.

Nancy Pope 4:25
because there were postmasters who did not want to just send them to the dead letter office. And they’d say, I can’t destroy this, we have to see if maybe somebody can answer these letters and publishers would put them in the newspaper and say, you know, look at this wonderful letter from this child, very, very Victorian colorful language. Shouldn’t somebody respond to this?

Brian Earl 4:45
Well, the Postal Service had to do something. Dealing with all of these letters was an unneeded distraction, and it put a strain on it to limited resources at the dead letter office. And even though the unofficial policy was to look the other way when a letter was handed over to a charity that couldn’t go on forever. So in 1907, the Postmaster General issued an authorization

Nancy Pope 5:06
postmasters are directed to deliver all letters, arriving at the respective post offices, addressed plainly and unmistakably to Santa Claus without any other terms or expressions, identifying the person for whom the letters are intended to any regularly organized, charitable society, in the city or town of address, to be used exclusively for philanthropic purposes.

Brian Earl 5:31
It’s the only example ever where mail address to one person can legally be delivered to another. And then starting in 1913, the rule was written into the annual regulations making it permanent and official.

in a big city like New York, where thousands of letters were pouring in, even the act of simply handing them over to charities was still a big pain. For a couple of years, most of New York City’s letters to Santa still ended up at the dead letter office. And that was a pretty big deal. It was even front page news on two different newspapers. And then one day a customs agent named john Gluck stepped forward to offer a helping hand. He had come up with a sophisticated system for receiving and verifying and responding to the letters and matching them with an appropriate charity or donor. He was, in other words, a middleman in New York City’s postmaster was happy to have him. His first year of operation was a smash hit. 10s of thousands of letters were answered and gifts delivered. And all he was doing was forwarding letters to potential donors. But some of the city’s richest families and we’re talking about the Astor’s and the vanderbilts, and the like, started donating money to his operation. And soon john Gluck got the crazy notion that he could build a huge marble building in downtown New York City to run his operation. A real life centers workshop. Real and expensive. He set up fraudulent charities and raised money from the list of wealthy contacts he had made, and that caught the attention of the city’s welfare Commissioner, who in 1927, found that Gluck’s operation had brought in about $1.4 million in today’s money, but they couldn’t account for it. Now, there wasn’t enough evidence to convict anyone of a crime. But needless to say, that was the end of john Gluck handling letters to Santa. But the Postal Service still works with donors to answer children’s letters to Santa Claus. The program just celebrated its centennial a couple of years ago. And if you want to get involved, you can, your local post office may be participating in operation Santa. And that means you can contact your post office and adopt a letter and volunteer to respond to it. You can Google operation Santa, and I’ll have a link on my website Christmas pass podcast.com. I’ll definitely be participating this year. And I hope you’ll consider it too if you’re able. Now I’m sure I wrote several letters to Santa when I was growing up. But the funny thing is, I don’t remember any of them. I did most of my growing up during the 80s. So I imagine I would have asked for something having to do with video games or Michael Jackson or if it were 1984 transformers. Those were the hottest toy that Christmas season. And those who didn’t receive Transformers maybe got the next best thing. Go bots. And that was certainly true for our friend Ken in Ontario, Canada. Let’s hear him tell a very 80s Christmas story.

Ken in Ontario 8:40
So every Christmas has that must have toy and there’s always the less expensive cruddy knockoff waiting to disappoint that hopeful youngster. And that’s how I felt after I tore into that wrapping paper to reveal my first go bought a robot action finger which transformed into a motorcycle. And by transform, I mean he took those big wheels off each of his shoulders and tucked one between his knees and held on to the other one and basically sat down but I gave my go bot the benefit of the doubt you know, maybe There’s more than meets the eye to this transforming robot, maybe ba baracus here can ride them around when he needs a break from his A-Team action pan. Besides, even though all my presence were open, and Christmas was effectively over for me, I knew I’d be going to grandma and grandpa’s house for Boxing Day where I’d be showered in gifts by my uncle and many aunts for what I like to call Christmas two: the sequel. So I get to my grandparents house and they have a strict no presents before dinner rule doesn’t hurt to swing by the old tree and take a gander I hold my aunt Grace’s gift to light you know that translucent wrapping paper that only aunts seemed to use. You can just make out the Yep, that’s a go bought. Not only that, see identical go bought it. Had waiting at home but I took the whole thing in stride if that’s how she wants to play this I can show my and I can be the bigger person. So I strolled up to and grace and I said yeah, you know it’s okay you bought me that go bot I already have i mean i wouldn’t feel too bad about it. Maybe they can be like twins or something. And my mom Yanks me away by the year as if I were the one who’s at align, but we have dinner and open presence and surprise it go bot thanks and grace. That’s okay. There’s still several laps in the in the ant colony. And it another gift to Kenny from it. Lois. Well, the size and shape of this box feels familiar. Just can’t put my finger on it. Yeah, that’d be a nother motorcycle transforming go. But I think I learned a valuable lesson that year. Hey, kiddo, just a heads up your family’s poor. So I’m just gonna hand you a lot of Gobots.

Brian Earl 10:55
Maybe it’s just the nostalgia talking. But it seems like even the things from the 80s that weren’t that great. We’re still pretty awesome. How about you? Do you have any Christmas memories that you’d like to share? If you do, I’d like to share them right here on the show. And it’s super easy to do. All you have to do is record a voice memo on your phone and send it to me at Christmas Past podcast@gmail.com. Try to keep it to about a minute more or less. And be sure to say your name and where you’re from. You can also email me something and maybe I’ll get a chance to read it here on the show.

Christmas Past is produced in sunny San Mateo, California by yours truly, Brian Earl. Thanks very much to Ken in Ontario, Canada, and be sure to check out his podcast called today’s tea with Kenny P. You can find it on iTunes and everywhere else. And I’ll put a link to it on my website Christmas pass podcast.com. That’s also where you’ll find show notes for this and every previous episode. I’d also like to thank Nancy Pope and Gus Ruiz. Well, I love my work. And of course, I’d like to thank you for listening. Be sure to subscribe if you haven’t already. You can find me on iTunes or however you get your podcasts. And be sure to come by Facebook, Twitter and Instagram because I’m sharing all kinds of fun things like Christmas trivia, and vintage Christmas stuff all the time. Just search for Christmas Past podcast in all three places and you’ll find me and I hope to find you in the next episode.