‘Tis the season! Oregon’s historic newspapers are full of holiday cheer from years past! As the Christmas holiday approaches, so too do thoughts of Christmas traditions, such as selecting and/or decorating a Christmas tree, hanging Christmas lights, sending Christmas cards and singing Christmas carols. The list of Christmas traditions goes on and on!
Writing letters to Santa Claus is one of the most apparent (and most entertaining) Christmas traditions that can be traced through our newspapers. It is difficult to know just how long this tradition has been in play, but a search for “Dear Santa” on the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America website reveals that children were writing letters to Santa by at least 1874. The following clip from an Ohio newspaper even reveals the children’s logic behind publishing their letters in the newspaper:
This early example reveals that children were already writing letters to Santa in the late 1800s. However, publishing children’s letters to Santa did not become a widespread trend among newspapers until the turn of the 20th century. The oldest letter to Santa that we found in Historic Oregon Newspapers is from 1890:
While this letter was not written with the explicit purpose of being published in the newspaper, it was sent to Griffin & Reed, a local stationary and bookstore in Astoria at the time. Apparently, many retail stores served as the destination for such letters, since Santa Claus often appeared in the stores to spread Christmas merriment and listen to children’s wishlists. For example, the Olds, Wortman & King department store in Portland made Santa welcome in the store, and encouraged children to write to him, publishing a select number of letters in the Oregon Daily Journal as part of their advertising:
By 1908, many newspapers were regularly publishing letters to Santa each year, especially the Oregon City Courier:
In 1912, the U.S. Postal Service started the “Letters to Santa” program with the goal of responding to children’s letters and providing help to children in need. The program continues today, thanks to Postal workers, volunteers, charitable organizations and corporations. The following clip illustrates the very beginnings of this idea:
According to the U.S. Postal Service, “In 1912, Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock authorized local postmasters to let employees and citizens respond to these letters. This became known as Operation Santa. In the 1940s, mail volume for Santa increased so much that the Postal Service invited charitable organizations and corporations to participate by providing written responses and small gifts” (Letters to Santa Program FAQs).
The letters continue to crop up over the years in our historic newspapers, revealing all sorts of interesting wants and needs, special requests, and selfless thoughts of giving to others. Some of the letters are quite surprising, such as this gem from the Sunday Oregonian:
Some children actually admitted to being naughty, but would still request gifts for themselves and others, such as this boy, whose letter was published in Ashland High School’s student newspaper:
Looking back through these letters leads to many interesting questions and thoughts. In what ways have “Dear Santa” letters changed over the years? What kinds of gifts are still on lists today, and which ones are no longer desired? How many children continue to write Santa telling him that they have moved, or to request gifts for friends and family? How do your Christmas wishes compare to these letters?
The letters featured here represent just a snapshot of all that can be found by searching historic newspapers. Try searching keywords such as “Dear Santa,” “Letters to Santa,” “Christmas,” “Santa Claus,” and “Christmas Tradition” and see what comes up. There are always new and exciting images and texts just waiting to be discovered!
Happy searching, and happy holidays from ODNP!