What Children Want: Wish Lists and Beyond in Letters to Santa

by Leslie Myrick and Martha Rust

As this post goes live on December 24th, Santa is beginning his annual trip delivering gifts to children around the globe, which the young at heart of all ages may follow thanks to NORAD’s Santa tracker.1 Somehow Santa knows what children want for Christmas, but how?

One answer to that question would be that he is keenly attuned to individual children’s lives and wishes; another would be that children let him know. As author of The Santa Claus Man, Alex Palmer, explains, children have long had ways of conveying their wishes to Santa: some shouted them up the chimney, others left notes in their stockings or by the fireplace, where, as they were told, their notes would combust into message-filled smoke that rose up through the chimney to Santa, who would understand it.2 Since sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, children have also sent Santa their wish lists through a more down-to-earth channel: the mail.  

In the United States, improvements in the postal service after the Civil War seemingly kindled interest in mailing letters to Santa; an early example was published in a newspaper from 1865.3 By 20 December 1871 the practice was well enough established to have been represented in a cartoon by Thomas Nast on the cover of Harper’s Weekly, portraying Santa sorting letters into two piles: letters from naughty children towering on the left; a modest pile of letters from nice children on the right.4 In the same year newspapers began to publish children’s letters to Santa in appeals to charitable readers to play pseudo-Santas themselves. In this post, we look at perhaps the earliest of such pleas, “Santa Claus at the Soldier’s Children’s Home,” which appeared in the  Trenton State Gazette (New Jersey) on December 13, 1871 (p. 3). 

In the appeal, the managers of Trenton’s Soldiers’ Children’s Home express their hope of raising funds in order to purchase a gift for each of the approximately two-hundred orphans in their care.5 Perhaps to give potential donors a sense of how their money would be spent and to bring glimpses of the orphans to readers’ minds, the request explains that the Home’s matron has already ascertained the children’s desires by asking them to put them down in writing–in letters to Santa. At the time of the article’s going to print, Santa had received 116 letters, which included requests for a list of items ranging from the practical to the ethereal: “skates, dolls, Bibles, books, writing desks, boots, tippets, muffs, fan-tail pigeons, drums, an accordion, buckskin gloves, sleds, ladies companions, and a canary bird.” 

The formal part of the appeal concludes by supplying the name of the manager to whom funds should be sent but adds, “As a matter of interest we append a few specimens of the letters received.” The managers of the Soldiers’ Children’s Home seem to have been canny fundraisers, for under the innocent rubric of a “matter of interest,” readers find nineteen letters that give earnest and polite voices to the list of items in the main part of the appeal. Adding a poignant tone to those voices, almost all of them ask for only one gift, and many express a sense of scarcity along with an awareness both of being only one of many children on Santa’s list and of choosing a single gift from a whole list of possibilities.

Foreseeing the possibility of there not being enough presents for all of his fellow residents if any were broken along Santa’s route, one writer advises him to be careful while riding on ice:

Dear Old Santa Claus: As I have never written to a Santa Claus before, I thought I would write to you. I am in the Soldiers’ Children’s Home, Trenton. I told you that because I thought you would like to know where I lived. We have a great many children here. We would like it if you would draw your team around to our front door. You must be very careful when you are riding over the ice not to upset yourself and your team, for if you do you might break half your things, and then there would not be enough for all the children. Please send me a writing desk. Good-bye.

Another also warns of the long roster of children at the Home and supplies his name so that Santa can label his present:

Dear Santa: As Christmas is fast approaching and we all feel glad it is, we want you to come and visit us with your nice Christmas presents. You must not be frightened if I tell you we have more than two hundred children, and we all expect a present from you. If you will please give me a writing desk furnished with pen, ink, lead pencil, paper, &c., I will thank you for it. I will write my name so you can put it on.

One of the shorter letters focuses on Santa’s abundance of presents, from which she would like a single one of good size:

Dear Santy: We reverence your old age, and many, many thanks for your beautiful gifts. P.S.–Be sure and bring me a nice large one.

Another writer begins her letter with a short list of the items her companions have requested and then seems momentarily overwhelmed by a long list of possibilities in her mind. Saying she will choose one, she ultimately gives Santa a choice between two:

Dear Santa Claus–All of the girls have written but me, nearly, and now I shall begin. The girls have written for muffs, writing desks, and various other things.–There are so many things to have, that I did not know what to take, but I will have to make up my mind, so I will tell you what I would like to have. If you please, I would dearly like to have either a muff or a small trunk, and I will be very grateful for it.

But perhaps the child who asks for a canary is the one with the most expansive sense of the list of possible gifts:

Dear Santy–I hear that you have so many nice things to spare, I want to know if you have got a pretty little canary bird in a cage for me?

This letter writer’s sense that he is asking for a gift that Santa has “to spare” registers a note of angst or deprivation that might naturally arise from her orphaned state but could also be an effect of the awareness that runs through many of the letters of there being so many possible gifts and so many children wanting them.

The more things change, the more things are the same. Nearly a century and a half after the Soldiers’ Children’s Home appeal, American newspapers still publish children’s letters to Santa though now to publicize the USPS’s “Operation Santa.” The letters now appear online, inviting volunteers to “Adopt a Letter,” which involves pledging to send a child writer at least one item on her list.6 While these days children enumerate more items than our nineteenth-century orphans did, this year the letters also bear hints of anxiety and deprivation. An article in the New York Times entitled “Dear Santa, It’s Been a Hard Year” (12/18/20) reports distress signals in this pandemic year’s batch of children’s letters to Santa, distress that manifests in requests for items like good health and getting to see friends finding a place on kids’ wish lists. Like their nineteenth-century counterparts, however, these letter writers are ever earnest and hopeful. In fact, in its focus on a single gift–to share with his brother–five-year-old Andy’s letter is very similar to those written by the children of the Soldiers’ Children’s Home, except for the electronic nature of the gift and the mention of Covid-19:

Dear Santa,

Merry almost X-mas! I know you are busy, but I hope you can read this letter. It is from me and my brother. We both have been very good. We sometimes fight, but still love each other. We would like a Nintendo Switch to share. I know it is a lot of money so its OK if we dont get one. Thank you, Santa! I wish covid was over so we can hug.

Luckily for Andy and his brother, a Nintendo Switch is probably already in Santa’s bag with his name and address on it, for as we finish this post, all 23,865 letters that were sent to Operation Santa this year have been adopted. All the items wished for in those 23, 865 letters would make a very long list, but as the sampling of letters in this post has shown, children’s letters to Santa address a remarkable range of issues beyond identifying one gift or a whole list of them: from the logistics of Santa’s travels to the universe of possible gifts–from canaries to good health and friends–to the number of Santa’s gifts being sufficient to go around to all of their fellow letter-writers. 

1. NORAD Stands for North American Aerospace Defense Command. Find its NORAD Tracks Santa site here

2. See Alex Palmer, “10 Historical Facts About Santa Letters,” Mental Floss 18 December 2017. Palmer points out that the earliest correspondence between children and Santa took  the form of a letters from Old St. Nick, commenting upon a child’s behavior over the closing year, and hinting at his or her gift prospects. See also his “A Brief History of Sending a Letter to Santa,” Smithsonian Magazine, 3 December 2015.

3. It appeared on the front page of the Fremont Weekly Journal, 22 December 1865. On changes in the US postal service during and after the Civil War, see Palmer, “A Brief History.” 

4. These piles of letters could have given rise to the list of naughty and nice children that Santa examines in the song we discussed in a Listology post two years ago, “”Lists of Names: Santa’s in Particular.”

5. The Home had been established in 1865 to care for the children of New Jersey’s Civil War veterans. Find a detailed history in a guide to the Home’s archive here.

6.  Find details of the program at the Operation Santa site.

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