Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. That was a reply to the most famous Santa Claus letter of all time, but there have been millions more. “Santa letters provide an interesting lens through which we can understand Christmas,” said author Alex Palmer at the Flagler Museum (Whitehall) in Palm Beach on Dec. 4. He spoke during the annual Christmas tree lighting event at Whitehall, which is the finest place in Florida to celebrate the Christmas season.
Palmer has just authored a book about Santa Claus letters, focusing on one man in particular, who just happens to be a relative of his.
As the nineteenth century progressed Christmas moved from being an outdoor drunken holiday into the household “as a family holiday with children demanding treats from adults. Overseeing all of this was the character of Santa Claus.” Adopting a folksy style that suited the topic, Palmer outlined the origins of the American version of Santa. One slide he showed, which is also in the book, dates from 1821; it is the first known depiction of Santa in a sleigh drawn by a reindeer (just one, not a dozen).
“It's impossible to say who wrote the first Santa letter, but it was almost certainly from Santa rather than to him. The earliest Santa letters were didactic in their tone, encouraging good behaviour in their children,” Palmer said at Whitehall. These letters were typically written by Mothers to their often naughty children.
By the 1860s kids were “dropping their Santa letters into the mailbox. It was only a matter of time before children viewed the postman as a conduit to the Christmas saint. As the cost of postage dropped, the mailbox replaced the chimney as Santa's inbox.”
When toys began to be mass produced in the later 19th century, children expected Santa to bring them for Christmas. The production of letters to Santa grew along with this demand. “Some newspapers published the letters, and invited readers to respond, but the post office sent most of them to the Dead Letter office. By the turn of the 20th century the public complained about treating the children's letters with such neglect,” explained Palmer.
In 1912 the Post Office changed their policy and released the letters to charitable organisations; some post masters even answered the letters themselves. A New York businessman named John Gluck, who was born on Christmas Day, got approval of the post office to answer the letters. “In 1913 he launched the Santa Claus Association which operated out of a Manhattan restaurant. Gluck's approach required hard work but virtually no overhead. He would match the children's request with individual New Yorkers who bought and then hand-delivered gifts to the letter writers as Santa's ambassadors.”
Star power soon joined the effort. The great actor “John Barrymore donated the box office receipts from one night of his Broadway show to the Santa Claus Association; the original power couple Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford launched the Associations' 1923 season from their suite in the Ritz Carlton hotel. President Coolidge promoted their work and Pres. Harding tapped the organisation to send a message of Merry Christmas to the children of the United States. More than he could have imagined, Gluck had found his calling with his work in the Association.” Palmer curated an exhibit on the Santa Claus Association for Brooklyn's City Reliquary in December 2012.
The group continued for 15 years until New York’s commissioner for public welfare discovered Gluck was using the Association as his personal piggy bank. Gluck left New York in disgrace and moved to Miami where he died at age 73 in 1951.
In the book, Palmer writes that “If Gluck has a legacy, it is that once he moved the children's wishes out of the Dead Letter Office, it proved hard to send them back. In 1962, the New York City Post Office formalized the process of answering Santa letters under the program Operation Santa Claus,” and in 2006 it went national.
Palmer's book is an engaging read, although the first chapter would have been better left as a flashback chapter on Gluck's career before the Association. Launching directly into the Santa Claus story would have been far preferable.
The book provides a wealth of detail about the Association, which Gluck tried to unload onto the Salvation Army in 1919. “Publicly Gluck stated he was giving up the association because it had become too successful,” writes Palmer. It would have been better for Gluck if they had accepted; his life with the Association reads like a Greek tragedy. The proposal for a Santa Claus building in Manhattan can be seen in mythic terms as a temple to Gluck himself. For good or ill, it was never built, but Santa lives on. Yes Virginia, there still is a Santa Claus.
Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York.
Published by Lyons Press, 2015.
This article prepared by Dr. Matt Emanuele and Dr. Cliff Cunningham
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