30 years of letters to Santa
- Published: December 24, 2020
Among all the mail ferried by the U.S. Postal Service every year, there’s one name and address that arguably receives more correspondence than any other in the country: Santa Claus, North Pole. Considering Santa’s busy schedule, however, it’s no surprise that the famed Christmas patron needs some help answering fan mail.
For the past three decades, local Santa-designated aides have been providing that assistance, making sure that Santa not only receives the letters, but dutifully taking dictation — after a fashion — to make sure every letter writer receives a response. For years, the letters have been filed away — presumably for naughty-or-nice record-keeping. Now the letters have found a new home at the YS Library, where past letter writers — or their grown-ups — are invited to take home their holiday missives. (See gallery below for a small sampling)
For nearly all of the last three decades, former villager Peggy Barker has compiled these letters as Santa’s assistant. She said she took up the job in 1989 when she found herself with some extra time on her hands.
“By that year I was pretty much homebound, so I called the Post Office and asked what they did with the letters they got that were addressed to Santa,” Barker said.
The YS Post Office informed Barker, in so many words, that Santa hadn’t yet managed to find someone to help answer letters from Yellow Springs’ kids — and she jumped at the chance to fill the role. She wanted only one thing in return for taking on the job:
“I just asked that they keep me anonymous,” she said.
And for three decades, Barker mostly remained in the shadows — the unknown right hand of Santa Claus. Now that she’s retired from the post, she feels that she can share her stories about working alongside the famed Kris Kringle.
Barker said the letters came in at a trickle at the start — maybe seven or eight letters that first year — but eventually word got around that Santa was responding.
“I think the most Santa ever got was 33 one year,” she said.
Barker said that the majority of the letters Santa has received and saved over the years have included the traditional lists of gift requests. In that way, they serve as a sort of historical record of what kids hoped would be under the tree over the decades — from the early Nintendo Entertainment System to Beanie Babies to Britney Spears CDs to iPhones. Some intellectual properties are evergreen, it seems: every year, Santa gets requests for American Girl and Barbie dolls, LEGOs and Star Wars toys.
The letters also often include questions about Santa’s home life — typically inquiries into the good health of Santa’s spouse and the most popular reindeer, Rudolph. Santa has also occasionally received letters after the holidays, offering thanks for presents.
“The ‘thank you’ letters were always a nice surprise,” Barker said.
During her tenure as assistant, Barker said that Santa tended to answer letters in a particular way — handwritten in green ink with a red signature on special stationery. A stamp — which Barker had specially made at Santa’s request — would mark each return letter that was sent out, acknowledging to young writers that their responses had come straight from the North Pole.
“I always liked to put on a Santa hat when I was helping with the letters — to get into the spirit,” Barker said.
Barker said that her job has required a certain amount of quick thinking over the years — especially when letters to Santa have gone off the beaten path.
“I’ll never forget the kid who wrote a letter one year that said something like, ‘Some of the kids at school say you’re not real — so I came up with a way to find out for myself,’” Barker said.
The letter from the enterprising young villager went on to describe a foolproof plan to quell any schoolyard doubts — they would leave a beloved toy by the Christmas tree, along with some markers, and asked that Santa sign the toy.
“And I thought, ‘Well, you crafty little stinker!’” Barker said with a laugh. “‘You’re trying to pull one over on Santa Claus!’”
Needless to say, Barker was able to alert Santa about the plan. She was also able to call the letter writer’s mother, who was grateful for the late-night call.
“Thank God Yellow Springs is a small community — I was able to look her up in the red phonebook,” Barker said. “She kept telling me, ‘Oh, thank you — I would never have known!’”
Santa wrote back and assured the young writer that the signature would be there on Christmas morning, and Barker applied the North Pole stamp to the letter. She also ended up sending the young writer’s letter back to the author’s family — though she decided not to use the North Pole stamp on that envelope.
“Because I knew the kid would see it — and clearly I needed to be crafty with this one, who was really smart,” Barker said, laughing.
Barker said Santa also got a fair number of letters from kids confiding about their difficulties with remaining on the “nice list.”
“One little girl wrote, ‘You know, I’ve worked really hard this year to be nice to my sister — but she won’t leave me alone and sometimes I just want to slap her!” Barker said.
Santa counseled the girl to refrain from resorting to physical violence, and suggested that, while younger siblings can be a nuisance, it was likely that the girl’s little sister looked up to her and that, perhaps, this was why she followed her around.
“So Santa told her that, any time she was feeling frustrated, she could write to the North Pole and tell Santa all about it, and Santa would write back,” Barker said.
By the early 2000s, computers and the internet became more prevalent in households, and children were now able to reach Santa through email — a service Barker didn’t help with. She said she thinks this had something to do with the steady decline in the number of handwritten letters Santa received over the next decade or so.
“It’s hard to compete with computers, but there were some kids who wrote every year, no matter what,” she said.
As Santa’s helper, Barker said she also received a good amount of help herself — from the YS Post Office. Occasionally, young writers would send their letters with no return address, and mail carriers got into the habit of marking down the addresses where they received such letters. She also noted one especially snowy winter, just a few days before Christmas, when a young villager had written a letter to Santa at the last minute.
“A postal worker — not even the one who was on my route — came to the door and handed a letter to me,” she said.
The postal worker explained that, despite the freezing temperature and deep snow, a child had waited all morning beside their mailbox to make sure they could get their letter to Santa into the mail carrier’s hand.
“The postal worker handed me the letter and asked, ‘Do you think Santa could get a reply letter written really quickly — I kinda told the kid I had an ‘in’ with Santa,’” Barker said. “I told him, ‘You got it!’”
Within a few hours, Santa’s reply had been penned, sealed, picked up by the mail carrier and delivered straight into the hands of the waiting child.
“Sometimes things got a little complicated, but the Post Office was really helpful and they always played their part — I just give super praise to everyone involved there,” Barker said.
Another help to Santa and Barker was her son, the late Nathan Barker.
“That was just Nathan — if you needed something, he was there,” she said.
She recalled that he was especially helpful when, at one point, Santa began receiving letters referring to the book (and later film) “The Polar Express,” in which a young boy receives a magic bell from Santa’s sleigh — a bell that only rings for those who believe.
Santa, Barker said, had never read “The Polar Express.”
“So we were getting these letters asking, ‘Am I going to get my bell?’ and talking about the Polar Express, and we had no idea what they were talking about,” Barker said.
Nathan volunteered to pick up a copy of the book at the library in order to enlighten Santa, and then to pick up some sleigh bells.
“And, of course, he got the most expensive one — it was $9!” Barker said.
Barker said her son also helped spot letters from children who were especially in need, and made sure Santa paid special attention to them.
“We didn’t get many of those, I don’t think, but Nathan and I always made sure Santa would come through with at least one present from the list for those kids,” she said. “I always worried that there were some I didn’t notice or that slipped through the cracks — that would just break my heart.”
Nathan died in 2018, and that same year, Barker moved to Springfield to be near her two grandchildren. Without the help of her son — and now outside of the village — Barker figured it was time to hang up her Santa’s helper hat.
“I would have loved to keep doing it, and if Nathan was still alive he would, too, but there are way more kids in Springfield — and it would just be too much,” she said. “I just turned 70, and I feel young in the heart and the brain, but darn old age!”
When she left town, she passed the helper hat along to Connie Collett, former head librarian at YS Library. Acting as Santa’s assistant in 2018 and 2019, Collett observed that the downward trend that Barker had noticed has continued.
“There haven’t been a lot [of letters] recently, just five to seven per year,” she wrote via email last week.
Collett held onto the letters that Barker had collected, which are stored in large binders and manila folders. The letters are arranged meticulously by year, with many pasted onto sheets of paper, their envelopes attached to the back. A dutiful record keeper, Barker marked each one with the date on which they were received, and once they were answered, she marked them with the initials “S.C.” Barker also kept some copies of Santa’s response letters — sometimes photocopied, and sometimes written out again by hand.
“[Barker] had the idea of making them available at the library,” wrote Collett, whose connections to the institution made the idea viable. On Santa’s behalf, Collett placed an announcement in the News last month, inviting anyone who might have written a letter to Santa from 1989 to 2019 to peruse the volumes and take home what they find.
When villager Sylvia Ellison read the announcement in the paper, she wasted no time in heading to the library.
“I was off like a shot — I said, ‘I’m going over there right now!’” she said.
Ellison was able to find a stack of letters written by her two sons, Windom and Harper, as well as her niece, Alice. Santa had also held onto “thank you” notes Ellison’s sons had written after the holidays, which were a nice find. She said the family looked forward to receiving Santa’s replies each year, remarking that Santa had “beautiful handwriting.”
Ellison said that the search through the volumes of letters brought her joy, but also led her to appreciate Santa’s less recognized impact after stumbling upon a letter from a young person who was going through a rough time.
“This person didn’t ask Santa for anything — they just wrote about their life and what was going on at home,” Ellison said.
The archive included a copy of Santa’s response to that letter, in which Santa writes at length to counsel and comfort the young person — and then connect them with further help.
“It was so cool to see what we could find from our own family [in the letter archive], but in a larger sense I started to appreciate the incredible responsibility that [Santa] takes on every year,” Ellison said.
Villager Kirsten Bean also had her own letter returned to her; it was written in 1995, when Bean was 11. The letter, printed on computer paper, makes several polite suggestions for gifts, such as “new or used stamps,” “hobby shop gift certificate (from a shop that sells model cars),” a flannel nightgown and a pocket knife. At the bottom, Bean typed: “Please Santa, I would really like these things a whole, whole lot,” and signed the letter, “With Love.”
Bean, now with two children of her own, said that she thinks she remembers receiving a reply from Santa that year, but she’s not sure — though perhaps the memory is eclipsed by the fact that Santa came through for her in another way: she did, in fact, receive the requested pocket knife that year.
Bean said she thought her eldest child, Natalia, would get a kick out of reading her young mother’s Christmas wishes from yesteryear.
“I am so me in that list,” she wrote via text message last week. “I don’t think I have changed much at all.”
Collett said Santa hasn’t received any letters this year — though she recently passed the torch to another local helper, who will remain anonymous during their tenure, as tradition mandates. This reporter can confirm, however, that the new helper has been schooled by Barker — the longtime expert — in all the tips and tricks of being Santa’s assistant.
“I’m glad to know that it will continue,” Barker said. “Santa has a whole network of helpers — isn’t Santa lucky?”
With a laugh, she added: “You really gotta love the old guy!”
Letters to Santa are available for perusal and pick up at the library now through Dec. 31. Villagers are asked to call 937-352-4003 in advance to make an appointment to look through the archive.
Kids who would like to write to Santa can address their letter to “Santa Claus, North Pole” — remembering to include their return address — and drop their letters in the mailbox. No stamp is required.