The decades transitioning from the late 19th to early 20th centuries are among the most eventful and consequential in creating our modern Christmas. Christmas was becoming a more public and commercial holiday. Leading this culture change was New York City, where official tree lighting ceremonies and parades and big retailers like Macy’s and Woolworth’s were all bringing Christmas into the modern age. In many ways, it was a continuation of the work from decades prior, when New Yorkers Clement Clarke Moore, Washington Irving, and Thomas Nast were putting the finishing touches on our image of Santa Claus.
It’s a piece of Christmas history you’ve never heard…and it’s a doozy
And in the middle of all of this is a story you’ve probably never heard before. Set against the backdrop of The Great War and the Roaring 20s, it’s a story about Santa Claus and charity and Christmas spirit. But it’s also about so much more. It’s about the media and bitter rivalries, celebrity culture and ambition, personal reinvention and the lengths some people will go to achieve it. It’s a story populated by playboy mayors, G Men, movie stars, art thieves, U.S. presidents, and gun-toting boy scouts.
This is the story of the Santa Claus Association, an organization that answered children’s letters to Santa Claus when nobody else could.
My Dear Santa…
It all started when children started writing letters to Santa in the late 19th century. Addressed simply to “The North Pole” or something similar, these letters — many of them from poor children — wound up destroyed or caught in the red tape of the postal system, often ending up at the depressingly-named Dead Letter Office.
Around this time, the postal system was getting modernized in NYC, thanks to an ambitious new postmaster. The parcel post was changing how people used the mail, and it was straining the system, especially around the holidays.
In 1907, newspapers began running some of these letters after the postmaster lifted a ban on releasing the letters. Other cities had tried similar systems, with varying degrees of success.
Releasing letters to the public: an on-again/off-again experiment
The Charity Organization Society (COS), a watchdog group, had concerns. Why rely on the myth of Santa and newspapers when there were established charities better able to address the needs of the poor? Besides, this approach was vulnerable to all kinds of fraud. And so, in 1908, COS chief W. Frank Persons persuaded the postmaster to reinstate the ban.
But readers liked seeing these letters in the newspaper. The newspapers used their position to publicly call out the postmaster a scrooge for obstructing Santa’s work. The public was frustrated with the post office and demanded that they release the letters for anyone who might be interested in answering them themselves.
In 1911, they relented, and released the letters for the month of December. They did it again in 1912. But there weren’t many takers. In 1912, one paper ran the headline, “Santa Claus is Tardy Saint” because letters were piling up.
Santa Claus a tardy saint
The following year, releasing the letters became permanent official policy. Any approved organization could receive and answer them during December. But there were still not many takers at first.
Solving this problem would take ambition, a clever plan, and boundless Christmas spirit. And in 1913, help arrived from John Duval Gluck, a man who studied international law at Cambridge and Heidelberg, who was a “special representative of newspapers,” a “famous tariff expert and investigator,” and a member of the Secret Service, among other impressive credentials. The only problem was that none of them were real.
- The Santa Claus Man book by Alex Palmer
- The Bowery Boys podcast
- My Dear Santa main page at Christmas Past
Music in this episode
- “A Little Powder” — Blue Dot Sessions, via Free Music Archive
- “Ranch Hand” — Blue Dot Sessions, via Free Music Archive
- “Night Light” — Blue Dot Sessions, via Free Music Archive
- “Holiday Gift” — Kai Engel, via Free Music Archive
- “Dowl” — Podington Bear, via Free Music Archive
- “Hard Boiled” — Kevin MacLeod, via Incompetech
- “Oh Christmas Tree” — Kevin MacLeod, via Wikimedia Commons
- “Revelation” — Dave Depper, via Needledrop