Writer / Jeff Kenney
It’s a time-honored tradition going back well over a century: children writing letters to Santa Claus informing him of their desired Christmas gifts. Almost as old, according to the Smithsonian Magazine, is the practice of printing letters in a local newspaper.
The magazine, from December 2015, points to the early 19th century shift in American cultural depictions of the figure who had long been a revered Christian saint, Nicholas of Myra (Dutch Protestants, while they tended to reject his longstanding Catholic feast day on December 6, brought “Sinterklaas” into America, shifting his “special day” instead to Christmas), as well as the advent of widespread hand delivery of mail to cities during the Civil War, as the genesis of children writing letters to Kris Kringle en masse.
As postage costs fell in the 1860s, parents became more willing to pay for stamps so children could write their requests to Santa, and letters flooded post offices around the country.
According to the magazine, “The little folks are getting interested about Christmas,” wrote a reporter for Columbia, South Carolina’s Daily Phoenix in December 1873. A correspondent for the Stark County Democrat, in Canton, Ohio, noted the following year. “One day last week two bright little children entered the Democrat office and wanted us to print letters to Santa Claus, from them.”’
Printing said letters in the local newspaper became increasingly common in the early 20th century (one early local reference appeared in the Marshall County Independent newspaper of December 21, 1894, noting that Cleveland, Ohio-based Ella Jordan asked, in her letter to Santa, for a doll, pair of gloves, “a nice little cat on wheels,” picture book, set of dishes and handful of other requests).
As might be expected, requested gifts, besides evoking the charms and nostalgia of childhood, can also provide historical insight into the tastes, trends and even events of the day.
John Hodson of the Kankakee Valley Historical Society assembled several sets of children’s letters to Santa Claus from the first half of the 20th century in a wonderful series of posts on the society’s website at kankakeevalleyhistoricalsociety.org.
His set of 1906 letters from the Valparaiso Vidette-Messenger in some cases include updates as to what became of the children writing the letters, at times illustrating the sadly higher rate of childhood deaths, especially from epidemics and illnesses now more treatable by antibiotics, during the early 20th century.
Among these were Lena Allen of Hebron, Indiana, who wrote Santa to ask for “a new dress, sewing box and a box of writing paper and my little sister wants a doll.”
As Hodson notes, Lena Allan was born on December 7, 1894, in Porter County and died on February 24, 1908, from pneumonia.
Similarly, young Clarence Riddle of Deep River, born in 1900, wrote to Santa in 1906 to request “a little telephone and a storybook and a game and some nuts and candy and bring whatever you think is best for a little boy,” adding, “I go to school most every day.” He died on Christmas Day, December 25, 1911, in Michigan City, of typhoid fever.
Not all stories of Santa letter writers, of course, were so grim. Florence Cummins of Hebron, born in 1899, asked St. Nick for a “sewing box and a little stove and Vance wants a jack-in-the-box and I want a sled and he wants a rubber ball and he wants a little doll and I want a little doll too we want a sack of candy and some oranges we want some nuts and bring papa and mama something.”
Florence went on to marry Ray L. Gear in Portland, Oregon, in 1920, joining the Women’s Army Corps in 1942, and living a long life up to her death in September, 1988, in Pasco, Washington.
Alvia W. Hitesman of Valparaiso, who sought “a hobbyhorse & some nuts & candy” and who made a point of noting his Sunday school and school attendance, and that he was, at age 6, “a good boy,” went on to marry Edna Smith in 1931. He died in September, 1966, in Valparaiso.
In earlier years, items requested of Santa often mixed toys with more practical items, like “a silk muffler…a box of letters, a blue necktie, two dozens of linen handkerchiefs, a bank, [and] finger gloves” for Luis Borucki of Valparaiso.
Many children, both in 1906 and in letters published in the The Times in Munster, Indiana, on December 16, 1911, requested fruits, candies, and/or nuts from Santa, with many reminding St. Nick not to forget the parents.
Touchingly, several children writing to Santa in 1911 echoed similar sentiments to those of Catherine Gergetz: “Do not forget the poor children.”
Several, like little Grace Young in 1911 who included the admonition, “Don’t forget the Christmas tree,” reflected a now largely defunct Christmas Eve tradition – Santa not only brought presents with him down the chimney, but brought the Christmas tree itself, fully decorated and only first beheld in wonder as children awoke on Christmas morn (of course, mom and dad played a significant role in procuring and decorating said tree, after children were in bed on Christmas Eve).
Some things never change. As recorded in another entry on the Kankakee Valley Historical Society website, Peggy Ann Grabber of Valparaiso asked Santa in 1939 for “something my brothers can’t play with for you see, I have six of them and I am the only girl and they take and play with all my things.”
One interesting facet of cultural changes reflected in children’s Santa letters lies in the sorts of toys requested, and the shift from what might be called more generic toys towards character-driven or branded items.
Deanna Kay Baker of Culver, for instance, asked Santa in 1942 for “a doll with real hair, a toy wrist watch, [and] an electric train.” Shirley Ann Ellam of the same town hoped for “a Dr. and Nurse kit and a pair of roller skates.”
In 1956, the Fairmount, Indiana News contained similar requests. David Jewell wanted “a truck, a fire engine, and a little ball,” while Jay Smith hoped for a gun, cowboy hat, and cowboy boots, and Lana Haynes wanted a baby doll, doll house, and radio.
By 1963, while Chet Marshall of Culver (who started his letter noting that he hated dolls) requested a machine gun with which to play Army, Connie Kelly of the same town asked for the very specifically named Happy and Nappy Playmate doll, while Nancy Blessing hoped for a similarly branded Tammy and Tressie doll. Karen Zechiel made her plea for some Vac-U-Form, a Ken doll, and a Password game – all specific character and brand-oriented toys, reflecting a trend which would become the norm in the following decades.
While Christmas of 1977 still saw letters in the Logansport Pharos-Tribune asking Santa for items like a doll and dollhouse, as well as a radio and walkie talkies, requests also included character and branded toys like Spider-man, Stretch Armstrong, the Weebles tree house, Charlie’s Angels, Don’t Break the Ice, and Micronauts.
A decade later, in 1987, the same newspaper (which, this time, encouraged kids to call the newspaper office and relay their requests, which would then be sent “via satellite” to Santa at the North Pole) reported that year’s most requested gifts included Pound Purries, radio-controlled cars, laser tag, a Talking Alf doll, Teddy Ruxpin, and “Ghostbusters” items, among others.
The paper also noted some of the more unusual requests included a pinball machine, snowmobile, chainsaw, a baby chicken, and a bedroom with blue walls. Perhaps tellingly, a plea for a computer was lumped in with the “unusual” requests listed. After all, while many children of more recent decades might seek a computer for gaming or other “fun” purposes, many readers may recall that in 1987, computers were hardly considered “fun” devices for most kids.
By Christmas of 1996, the Logansport paper’s Letters to Santa Claus page included many of the traditional items like dolls and race cars (and kudos should be given to young Eric Stearns for asking only for “Peace and Joy to the World”). A great many boys asked for Nintendo 64s that year, part of a growing trend of video-game-related items among many youngsters in the years to follow.
The Northwest Indiana Times in 2004 ran pages of letters to Santa Claus from Porter County, including an array of requests for the likes of XBoxes, video games and CDs, alongside character-oriented items ranging from Bob the Builder to Barbie, American Girl to the Wiggles. Some children, like Kailee Van Nieulande of Hebron and Elena Kipp of Valparaiso, made a point of asking specifically as to the well-being of Rudolph (he of red-nosed fame), while many more asked about Santa’s and Mrs. Claus’s health (all children who included commentary on their moral state, of course, reported having been good that year).
By contrast with the “oddness” of asking for a computer back in 1987, not surprisingly, several children from East Chicago, Indiana, asked for a laptop computer or iPad alongside other gifts, including young Brandon Chavez, Kamiya Seymour, Ke’Saun Santos and Adam Martinez. The same edition included a set of children who also peppered their letters with an array of potentially “stumping” questions for St. Nick, such as whether his elves were ever naughty, how he gets into their houses if they lack a chimney, how cold it is at the North Pole, and even whether he’s a god!
In today’s age of radically decreased use of printed letters sent via the postal mail, and with a widespread trend of “emails to Santa” not having taken off, the longstanding tradition has certainly dissipated, though (especially in elementary schools) it does persist.
But written out or not, children across northern Indiana and the country as a whole, whether they visit the jolly old elf in person, send their requests to him through their parents, or just assume he knows (since he ostensibly knows whether they’ve been bad or good already), continue to place their hopes in his faraway hands for their wishes to come true in stocking or under tree.