For many children, writing a letter to Father Christmas is as much a part of the festive season as decorating the tree or trying to get to sleep on Christmas Eve. But in the UK, ensuring that Santa is able to reply to every boy and girl (who supply a return address with their letter) is something that became an official Post Office policy in the early 1960s.
Earlier this month, Ashley March, archives assistant at the British Postal Museum & Archive presented a talk, Dear Santa: The History of Writing to Father Christmas, and revealed – Xmas spoiler alert! – the true story of Santa’s legion of not-so-little helpers and how each December they help to take care of the thousands of requests he receives.
March’s interest in both the idea of writing to Santa and his replying came about through an enquiry at the archives. A woman on a research visit asked if March knew what happened to all the letters that were addressed to Santa. After a bit of digging around, March produced a batch of material on the subject, but the initial question prompted him to think of others: When did people start writing to Santa? Why did the Post Office get involved? And who does the replying (on his behalf, of course)?
The results of his research formed the basis of his lecture – and he opened with a considered deconstruction of both Father Christmas (evolved from Europe’s St Nicholas) and Santa Claus (a more Dutch-American creation) and how our modern day conception of this chimney-loving figure is informed by several sources, including southern European and Teutonic mythology, plays, poetry, American illustration and Coca-Cola’s seasonal imagery of the 1930s. “His present-giving was Dutch, his jolliness and appearance were broadly English, and the fusion of these – and its diffusion around the world – was American,” March explained.
In his research, March found that at the end of the 19th-century, at the same time that the concept of Father Christmas was gaining momentum, literacy rates were increasing in Britain – hitting 75% of the population for the first time. More children could write and could produce more letters. March discovered early references to writing to Santa from 1896 and 1899 – the latter not the work of a child but of serial postal prankster, W Reginald Bray, who regularly tested the limits of the service by posting various objects, including himself, through the system. (Bray’s letter was part of a campaign of writing to ‘well known’ figures and was returned with a halfpenny surcharge.)
But the letter of 1896, mentioned in the Grantham Journal, was from a girl asking for “a box of paints”, March explained. And there were others, too, which featured in the local papers, such as the seven year-old boy writing to Father Christmas for some toys – “We should like to have something to play with, as we have nothing,” he’d written. In fact, the boy’s father had died from smallpox and, living in poverty with his two younger siblings, the letter prompted help – even a requested Christmas stocking was supplied.
By the early 1900s the London GPO were receiving thousands of letters addressed to Father Christmas which were dealt with by the ‘returned letter office’ in Mount Pleasant. While the Post Office was obliged to forward all letters addressed to places in other countries – usually Greenland (Denmark) – many of the letters were technically ‘undeliverable’ as they bore addresses, or instructions, that didn’t exist: ‘To Santa Clause, 100 Skies High’; ‘Send this to Dear Santa Claus. He lives in the moon’; and ‘Leave at town nearest to North Pole’ are three examples March mentioned. By the 1920s, unsure of how to deal with the increasing deluge of Christmas mail from children, it became apparent that the Post Office’s idea of returning the letters discretely to the sender’s parents would be problematic – and was hardly in the spirit of the season. But what to do?
The solution would finally arrive decades later in 1963. Prior to this date, several charities had formed a coalition called Operation Santa to attempt to send gifts back to some of the children writing in. But, in 1962, the French government had announced that it was putting into law that every letter addressed to ‘La Père Noël’ had to receive a postcard in reply. At the Postmaster General’s Christmas press conference in London that same year, a journalist asked if this process was something that could be adopted in Britain. Caught off guard, the reply hinted that, yes, the PO would look into the matter.
In January of 1963, proposals for how Santa could reply to all his letters were actively discussed. Did his reply even have to be a card at all? One suggestion was that a colouring book be sent back; while another postmaster put forward the idea of making a record which would play out Santa’s voice “in keeping with the times”. The trouble was the Post Office risked looking rather Scrooge-like if they requested any payment for a reply and this was not good for PR – the Danish method at the time was to send back a letter in Santa’s hand with a Hand Christian-Anderson fairy tale, but at a charge.
However, it was decided that the British model would emulate the French system and also what had been unveiled in New Zealand whereby a postcard – complete with message – would be sent back to the child without charge on provision of a return address. The case put to the Postmaster General was that, essentially, this was a good Christmas gesture and it would enhance the image of the Post Office. The PO’s one caveat was to not actively encourage the letter-writing, for fear of putting excess strain on the postal system at that time of year.
Postmaster General Reginald Bevins (thenceforth known as ‘Santa’ Bevins in the press), signed off the programme which had been deemed legal in accordance with the Post Office Act 1953 and the Inland Post Warrant of 1961 and the first reply card was sent out in December 1963. Designed by Ian Jackson, the card also included a hand-written note from Father Christmas – “Be good; be fast asleep” – and came in an envelope sporting a unique ‘Reindeerland’ postmark.
March explains that the Post Office had expected to send out 5,000 replies from Santa – but they received 11,000 letters, three-quarters of which had included a return address. Interestingly, the Belfast PO received just 30 letters – the city’s Telegraph newspaper noting that most of the children in the area still used the ‘up the chimney’ method to send their letters.
In the following weeks, thank-you letters came in to the Post Office in response to Santa’s reply postcards – some even containing money. In one letter March discovered, a mother wrote of her children that “the joy and excitement on their little faces to receive a letter from Santa had to be seen to be believed”. The scheme, which had cost just over £968 – £18,500 in today’s money – was considered a success.
According to March, in 2014 some 600,000 replies from Santa were sent out by the Post Office and, thanks to receiving more publicity, around twice that amount are expected this year – organised by a team of 60 in the national returns centre. While it’s now too late to write to Father Christmas to ensure he can reply before his busiest day of 2015, March is in no doubt that he will continue to have a place in the traditions that take place at this time of year. The wireless, TV and video, even the internet haven’t diminished the appeal of penning a note of Christmas wishes and then waiting for that postmarked reply to drop through the door.
March ended his talk with an arresting quote: “All the innovations of modern civilisation have utterly failed to dispel from the childish mind the belief in Santa Claus. He lives and flourishes in a material and severely scientific age in which he should regard himself as a discredited anachronism.” Turns of phrase aside, the words could be from two years ago, maybe ten? In fact, it was written in 1898. Just goes to show that if you believe strongly enough in these things, they might just come true.
Ashley March’s talk is now available as a podcast at soundcloud.com. More information on the British Postal Museum and Archive is at postalheritage.org.uk. The Postal Museum, opening in 2017, will reveal five centuries of surprising social, communications and design history through the lens of one of the world’s most recognisable and iconic institutions. From the rise of social mail which made letters to Santa possible, to the groundbreaking poster design of the 1930s, The Postal Museum galleries will showcase the work of this remarkable service as it strove to keep us all in touch. As well as the museum itself, visitors will be able to embark on a subterranean ride on the old Post Office Underground Railway – Mail Rail – a unique and immersive attraction for all the family. To find out more about the plans for The Postal Museum visit postalmuseum.org