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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10 Things You Didn't Know About the Fourth of July
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With 242 years of tradition behind it, the Fourth of July is one of America’s most cherished holidays. It's when we celebrate our nation's mythology with a day off, a backyard barbecue, and plenty of fireworks. But with all that history, you'd be forgiven if you didn't know quite everything about July 4. So from the true story behind the signing of the Declaration of Independence, to some staggering hot dog statistics, here are 10 things you might not know about the Fourth of July.

1. THE DECLARATION WASN'T SIGNED ON JULY 4 (OR IN JULY AT ALL).

John Trumball's 1819 painting "Declaration of Independence."
John Trumball's 1819 painting "Declaration of Independence."
John Trumbull [Public domain] // Wikimedia Commons

It might make for an iconic painting, but that famous image of all the Founding Fathers and Continental Congress huddled together, presenting the first draft of the Declaration of Independence for July 4, 1776 signing, isn't quite how things really went down. As famed historian David McCullough wrote, "No such scene, with all the delegates present, ever occurred at Philadelphia."

It's now generally accepted that the Declaration of Independence wasn't signed on the Fourth of July—that's just the day the document was formally dated, finalized, and adopted by the Continental Congress, which had officially voted for independence on July 2 (the day John Adams thought we should celebrate). Early printed copies of the Declaration were signed by John Hancock and secretary Charles Thomson to be given to military officers and various political committees, but the bulk of the other 54 men signed an official engrossed (finalized and in larger print) copy on August 2, with others to follow at a later date. Hancock (boldly) signed his name again on the updated version.

So if you want to sound like a history buff at your family's barbecue this year, point out that we're celebrating the adoption of the Declaration, not the signing of it.

2. THE FIRST CELEBRATIONS WEREN'T MUCH DIFFERENT THAN TODAY'S.

After years of pent-up frustration, the colonies let loose upon hearing the words of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Military personnel and civilians in the Bowling Green section of Manhattan tore down a statue of King George III and later melted it into bullets; the King’s coat of arms was used as kindling for a bonfire in Philadelphia; and in Savannah, Georgia, the citizens burnt the King in effigy and held a mock funeral for their royal foe.

Independence Day celebrations began to look a bit more familiar the following year, as the July 18, 1777 issue of the Virginia Gazette describes the July 4 celebration in Philadelphia:

"The evening was closed with the ringing of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks, which began and concluded with thirteen rockets on the commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated. Every thing was conducted with the greatest order and decorum, and the face of joy and gladness was universal."

There were even ships decked out in patriotic colors lining harbors and streamers littering city streets. Once you get past the mock funerals and rioting of 1776, modern Independence Day celebrations have stuck pretty close to the traditions started in 1777.

3. EATING SALMON ON THE FOURTH IS A TRADITION IN NEW ENGLAND.

The tradition of eating salmon on the Fourth of July began in New England as kind of a coincidence. It just so happened that during the middle of the summer, salmon was in abundance in rivers throughout the region, so it was a common sight on tables at the time. It eventually got lumped in to the Fourth and has stayed that way ever since, even with the decline of Atlantic salmon.

To serve salmon the traditional New England way, you'll have to pair it with some green peas. And if you're really striving for 18th-century authenticity, enjoy the whole meal with some turtle soup, like John and Abigail Adams supposedly did on the first Fourth of July. (You can still be a patriot without the soup, though.)

4. MASSACHUSETTS WAS THE FIRST STATE TO RECOGNIZE THE HOLIDAY.

Massachusetts recognized the Fourth of July as an official holiday on July 3, 1781, making it the first state to do so. It wasn't until June 28, 1870 that Congress decided to start designating federal holidays [PDF], with the first four being New Year's Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. This decreed that those days were holidays for federal employees.

However, there was a distinction. The Fourth was a holiday "within the District of Columbia" only. It would take years of new legislation to expand the holiday to all federal employees.

5. THE OLDEST ANNUAL FOURTH OF JULY CELEBRATION IS HELD IN BRISTOL, RHODE ISLAND.

Eighty-five years before the Fourth of July was even recognized as a federal holiday, one tradition began that continues to this day. Billed as "America's Oldest Fourth of July Celebration," the town of Bristol, Rhode Island, has been doing Independence Day right since 1785.

The festivities began just two years after the Revolutionary War ended, and 2017 will be its 232nd entry. Over the years the whole thing has expanded well beyond July 4; the town of 23,000 residents now begins to celebrate the United States on Flag Day, June 14, all the way through to the 2.5-mile July 4 parade. What began as a "patriotic exercise"—meaning church services—has morphed into a cavalcade of parades, live music, food, and other activities.

6. AND THE SHORTEST PARADE IS IN APTOS, CALIFORNIA.

From the oldest to the shortest, the Fourth of July parade in Aptos, California, is just a hair over half a mile long. Taking up two city blocks, and measuring just .6 miles, this brief bit of patriotism features antique cars, decorated trucks, and plenty of walkers. Afterward, there's a Party in the Park, where folks can enjoy live music, food, and games.

7. THERE ARE AROUND 15,000 INDEPENDENCE DAY FIREWORKS CELEBRATIONS EVERY YEAR.

Fireworks burst over New York City.
JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images

According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, around 15,000 fireworks displays will take place for the Fourth of July holiday (even if some aren't exactly on July 4). Though pricing varies, most small towns spend anywhere from $8000-$15,000 for a fireworks display, with larger cities going into the millions, like the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular at around $2.5 million.

8. WE'LL EAT AN OBSCENE AMOUNT OF HOT DOGS.

Around 150 million, to be more specific—that's how many hot dogs will be consumed by Americans on the Fourth of July. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, that amount of dogs can stretch from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles more than five times.

In 2016, 70 of those dogs were scarfed down by Joey Chestnut, who won the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Competition for the ninth time.

9. AND WE'LL SPEND BILLIONS ON FOOD.

Americans will spend big on food and drinks this Fourth. Big to the tune of around $7.1 billion when all is said and done, according to the National Retail Federation. This includes food and other cookout expenses, averaging out to about $73 per person participating in a barbecue, outdoor cookout or picnic.

Then comes the booze. The Beer Institute estimates that Americans will spend around $1 billion on beer for their Fourth celebrations, and more than $450 million on wine.

10. THREE PRESIDENTS HAVE DIED, AND ONE WAS BORN, ON THE FOURTH.

You probably know that both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on July 4, 1826—50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence was adopted. They're not the only presidents to have died on the Fourth, though; James Monroe—the nation’s fifth president—died just a few years later on July 4, 1831.

Though the holiday might seem like it has it out for former presidents, there was one future leader born on Independence Day. The country's 30th Commander-in-Chief, Calvin Coolidge, was born on July 4, 1872.

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These Digital Fireworks Displays Can Help You Celebrate July 4 Wherever You Live
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Every Fourth of July needs to be capped off with a dazzling fireworks display, but depending on where you live, getting to one isn’t always easy. Many states have strict laws around which fireworks you can and can’t use on your own, and if there’s no public show in your town, you may be totally out of luck.

If you’re still craving a show, though, AtmosFX’s digital fireworks displays may be your best bet. These digital, animated fireworks shows can be downloaded from the company’s site where you can then either display them on your TV or project them onto surfaces around your home or backyard. The video options available allow for some customization, so you can either stick with a generic fireworks display or choose some patriotic colors along with a "Happy Fourth of July" message.

The company’s various digital fireworks videos come in at a 1080p HD resolution with sound effects that can be adjusted and customized—which is the perfect alternative to those decibel-busting fireworks displays designed to frighten your beloved pets. Some videos are meant to be displayed on TVs and monitors, while others are for wall projections and window displays. You can buy these à la carte for $6.99 each, or together in a package for $20.

Whether you live in an apartment, a state that prohibits fireworks, or are expecting some wet weather for your Independence Day party, look into a digital alternative by heading to the AtmosFX website.

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