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Alex Palmer
Alex Palmer

10 Historical Facts About Santa Letters

Alex Palmer
Alex Palmer

'Tis the season for tens of thousands of kids to sit down and write their annual letters to the North Pole’s most famous resident. While sending a letter to Santa Claus might seem like a pretty straightforward process, it’s had a colorful—and at times controversial—history. Here are 10 facts and historical tidbits to help you appreciate what it takes for St. Nick to manage his mail.

1. SANTA USED TO SEND LETTERS, NOT RECEIVE THEM.


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Santa letters originated as missives children received, rather than sent, with parents using them as tools to counsel kids on their behavior. For example, Fanny Longfellow (wife of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) wrote letters to her children every season, weighing in on their actions over the previous year (“I am sorry I sometimes hear you are not so kind to your little brother as I wish you were,” she wrote to her son Charley on Christmas Eve 1851). This practice shifted as gifts took on a more central role in the holiday, and the letters morphed into Christmas wish lists. But some parents continued to write their kids in Santa’s voice. The most impressive of these may be J.R.R. Tolkien, who every Christmas, for almost 25 years, left his children elaborately illustrated updates on Father Christmas and his life in the North Pole—filled with red gnomes, snow elves, and his chief assistant, the North Polar bear. 

2. ORIGINALLY, KIDS DIDN’T MAIL THEM.

Before the Post Office Department (as the USPS was known until 1971) presented a solution for getting Santa letters to their destination, children came up with some creative ways to get their messages where they needed to go. Kids in the U.S. would leave them by the fireplace, where they were believed to turn into smoke and go up to Santa. Scottish children would speed up the process by sticking their heads up the chimney and crying out their Christmas wishes. In Latin America, kids attached their missives to balloons, watching as their letters drifted into the sky.

3. IT USED TO BE ILLEGAL TO ANSWER THEM.


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Kids had another good reason not to send their letters through the mail: Santa couldn’t answer them. Santa’s mail used to go to the Dead Letter Office, along with any other letters addressed to mythical or undeliverable addresses. Though many individuals offered to answer Santa’s letters, they were technically not allowed to, since opening someone else’s letters, even Dead Letters, was against the law. (Some postmasters, however, violated the rules.) Things changed in 1913, when the Postmaster General made a permanent exception to the rules, allowing approved individuals and organizations to answer Santa’s mail. Even today, such letters have to be made out explicitly to “Santa Claus” if the post office is going to allow them to be answered. That way, families actually named “Kringle” or “Nicholas” don’t accidently have their mail shipped to the wrong place.

4. A CARTOON HELPED SPREAD THE POPULARITY OF WRITING TO SANTA.


Agrafian Hem Rarkovia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If one work can be credited with helping kickstart the practice of sending letters to Santa Claus, it’s Thomas Nast’s illustration published in the December 1871 issue of Harper’s Weekly. The image shows Santa seated at his desk and processing his mail, sorting items into stacks labeled “Letters from Naughty Children’s Parents” and “Letters from Good Children’s Parents.” Nast’s illustrations were widely seen and shared, being in one of the highest-circulation publications of the era, and his Santa illustrations had grown into a beloved tradition since he first drew the figure for the magazine’s cover in 1863. Reports of Santa letters ending up at local post offices shot up the year after Nast’s illustration appeared. 

5. NEWSPAPERS USED TO ANSWER THEM.

Before the Post Office Department changed its rules to allow the release of Santa letters, local newspapers encouraged children to mail letters to them directly. In 1901, the Monroe City Democrat in Monroe City, Missouri, offered “two premiums” to the best letter. In 1922, the Daily Ardmoreite, in Ardmore, Oklahoma, offered prizes to the three best letters. The winning missives were published, often with the children’s addresses and personal information included. This practice shifted as the post office took greater control over the processing of Santa letters.

6. CHARITY GROUPS FOUGHT THEM.

When the Post Office Department changed the rules on answering Santa’s letters, many established charities protested, complaining that the needs of the children writing the letters could not be verified, and that it was a generally inefficient way to provide resources to the poor. A typical complaint came from the Charity Organization Society, whose representative wrote to the Postmaster General, “I beg to request your consideration of the unwholesome publicity accorded to ‘Santa Claus letters’ in this and other cities at Christmas time last year.” Such pleas eventually lost out to the public’s sentimentality, as the Postmaster General determined answering the letters would “assist in prolonging [children’s] youthful belief in Santa Claus.”

7. KIDS DON’T ALWAYS ADDRESS THEM TO THE NORTH POLE.


Alex Palmer

While most children sending letters today direct them to the North Pole, for the first few decades of Santa letters this was just one of many potential destinations. Other locations where children imagined St. Nick based his operations included Iceland, Ice Street, Cloudville, or “Behind the Moon.” Exceptions can still be found today. While most U.S. letters addressed to “Santa Claus” end up at the local post office for handling as part of the Operation Santa program, if the notes are addressed to Anchorage, Alaska, or Santa Claus, Indiana (a real city name) they will go to those cities’ post offices, where they get a special response from local letter-answering campaigns. Kids in England can address letters to “Santa’s Grotto” in Reindeerland, XM4 5HQ. Canadian children can just write "North Pole" and add the postmark H0H 0H0 to ensure the big man gets their notes.


Alex Palmer

8. NOT EVERYONE ANSWERING THE LETTERS IS SQUEAKY-CLEAN.

While many of the people and organizations who took on the project of answering Santa letters are upstanding, happy folks, some of the more prominent efforts to answer Santa’s mail have had sad endings. In Philadelphia, Elizabeth Phillips played “Miss Santa Claus” to the city’s poor in the early 1900s, but shortly after losing the right to answer Santa’s mail (due to a change in post office policy), she killed herself by inhaling gas fumes. A few years later, John Duval Gluck took over answering New York City’s Santa letters, under the organized efforts of the Santa Claus Association. But after 15 years and a quarter-million letters answered, Gluck was found to have been using the organization for his own enrichment, and the group lost the right to answer Santa’s mail. More recently, a New York City postal worker pled guilty this October to stealing from Santa: using the USPS’s Operation Santa Claus to get generous New Yorkers to send her gifts.

9. THE POST OFFICE TRACKS THEM IN A DATABASE.

In an effort to formalize the answering of Santa letters, in 2006 the U.S. Postal Service established national policy guidelines for Operation Santa, run out of individual post offices throughout the country. The rules required those seeking to answer letters to appear in person and present photo ID. Three years later, USPS added the rule that all children’s addresses be redacted from letters before they go to potential donors, replaced by a number instead. The whole thing is kept in a Microsoft Access database to which only the post office’s team of “elves” has access.

10. SANTA HAS AN EMAIL ADDRESS.


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Always one to evolve with the times, Santa now answers email. Kids can reach him through a number of outlets, such as Letters to Santa, Email Santa.com, and Elf HQ. Macy’s encourages kids to email St. Nick as part of its annual "Believe" campaign (children can also go the old-fashioned route and drop a letter at the red mailbox at their nearest Macy’s store), and the folks behind The Elf on the Shelf empire offer their own connection to St. Nick.

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Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
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On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

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3 Reasons Why Your New Year's Resolutions Fail—and How to Fix Them
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You don’t need a special day to come up with goals, but New Year’s Day is as good a time as any to build better habits. The problem is, by the time February rolls around, our best laid plans have often gone awry. Don’t let it happen this year: Heed these three simple tips for fail-proof resolutions.

PROBLEM 1: THEY’RE TOO OVERWHELMING

Let’s say your goal is to pay off $5000 worth of credit card debt this year. Since you're giving yourself a long timeframe (all year) to pay it down, you end up procrastinating or splurging, telling yourself you’ll make up for it later. But the longer you push it off, the bigger and more overwhelming your once-reasonable goal can feel.

Solution: Set Smaller Milestones

The big picture is important, but connecting your goal to the present makes it more digestible and easier to stick with. Instead of vowing to pay off $5000 by the end of next December, make it your resolution to put $96 toward your credit card debt every week, for example.

In a study from the University of Wollongong, researchers asked subjects to save using one of two methods: a linear model and a cyclical model. In the linear model, the researchers told subjects that saving for the future was important and asked them to set aside money accordingly. In contrast, they told the cyclical group:

This approach acknowledges that one’s life consists of many small and large cycles, that is, events that repeat themselves. We want you to think of the personal savings task as one part of such a cyclical life. Make your savings task a routinized one: just focus on saving the amount that you want to save now, not next month, not next year. Think about whether you saved enough money during your last paycheck cycle. If you saved as much as you wanted, continue with your persistence. If you did not save enough, make it up this time, with the current paycheck cycle.

When subjects used this cyclical model, focusing on the present, they saved more than subjects who focused on their long-term goal.

PROBLEM 2: THEY'RE TOO VAGUE

“Find a better job” is a worthy goal, but it's a bit amorphous. It's unclear what "better" means to you, and it’s difficult to plot the right course of action when you’re not sure what your desired outcome is. Many resolutions are vague in this way: get in shape, worry less, spend more time with loved ones.

Solution: Make Your Goal a SMART One

To make your goal actionable, it should be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. When you set specific parameters and guidelines for your goal, it makes it easier to come up with an action plan. Under a bit more scrutiny, "spend more time with loved ones" might become "invite my best friends over for dinner every other Sunday night." This new goal is specific, measurable, time-bound—it ticks all the boxes and tells you exactly what you want and how to get there.

PROBLEM 3: YOU FELL FOR THE “FALSE FIRST STEP”

“A false first step is when we try to buy a better version of ourselves instead of doing the actual work to accomplish it,” Anthony Ongaro of Break the Twitch tells Mental Floss. “The general idea is that purchasing something like a heart rate monitor can feel a lot like we're taking a step towards our fitness goals,” Ongaro says. “The purchase itself can give us a dopamine release and a feeling of satisfaction, but it hasn't actually accomplished anything other than spending some money on a new gadget.”

Even worse, sometimes that dopamine is enough to lure you away from your goal altogether, Ongaro says. “That feeling of satisfaction that comes with the purchase often is good enough that we don't feel the need to actually go out for a run and use it.”

Solution: Start With What You Already Have

You can avoid this trap by forcing yourself to start your goal with the resources you already have on hand. “Whether the goal is to learn a new language or improve physical fitness, the best way to get started and avoid the false first step is to do the best you can with what you already have,” Ongaro says. “Start really small, even learning one new word per day for 30 days straight, or just taking a quick walk around the block every day.”

This isn’t to say you should never buy anything related to your goal, though. As Ongaro points out, you just want to make sure you’ve already developed the habit a bit first. “Establish a habit and regular practice that will be enhanced by a product you may buy,” he says. “It's likely that you won't even need that gadget or that fancy language learning software once you actually get started ... Basically, don't let buying something be the first step you take towards meaningful change in your life.”

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