Dear Santa…A Christmas Tradition in Historic Newspapers

‘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!

Drawing of Santa Claus smiling while pouring hot water into a teacup, surrounded by decorative holly plants.

Daily capital journal. (Salem, Or.) 1903-1919, December 25, 1914, Image 12.

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:

Clipping reads: "For the children - One day last week two bright little children entered the Democrat office and wanted us to print letters to Santa Claus, from them. They wrote the letters themselves, and said they knew Santa Claus would see them if they were printed in the paper. We give the letters: Dear Santa Claus: We have moved. We don't live where we used to. We moved our shop to East Tuscarawas street, in Cassilly's frame building. Our chimney is small, but we have a trap door, and you can come down easy. -Louie Buckius. The other was from a little girl. Dear Santa Claus: We moved in Patton's house, North Market street, and I wish you would send me a doll and a little buggy and sleigh; our chimney is big enough to come down. Do send my little cousin Fannie a buggie too; be sure and come. I will be a good little girl. -Maggie Bartlett.

The Stark County Democrat., December 24, 1874, HOLIDAY EDITION, Page 7, Image 7, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

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:

Clipping reads: "Griffin & Reed of this city are daily in receipt of a number of letters addressed to Santa Claus. The following is a specimen of one received yesterday from Gray's River. It reads as follows, and was addressed: 'Santa Claus, Astoria.' Gray's River, Dec. 14th, 1890. Dear Santa Claus; bring my little sister a doll and a doll wagon and some candy and some nuts and some peanuts, and a tin horn. Bring me an air gun and a buck saw and a knife and some candy and some nuts and some peanuts. Frank.

The daily morning Astorian. (Astoria, Or.) 1883-1899, December 19, 1890, Image 3

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:

Clipping reads: "Here is a Generous Little Fellow. 'December 14, 1905. Dear Santa Claus: Santa Claus, when you come I will give you some cookies. Santa Claus, will you bring a wagon? I want a drum; I want a pair of slippers for Christmas, and a box of paints, and a brush, and a game of Flinch. My name is ----.'"

The Oregon daily journal. (Portland, Or.) 1902-1972, December 22, 1905, Image 5

By 1908, many newspapers were regularly publishing letters to Santa each year, especially the Oregon City Courier:

Clipping reads: "Little Letters to Santa Claus. Oregon City, Dec. 12, 1908. Dear Santa Claus - I want a horse, a train of cars, a drum, and a football. I guess you can send a horn. My Granpa Burns is the policeman and I'll tell him not to bother you on Xmas, cause he might think you was a robber going down the chimney. Please send my little sweetheart Willa Jones a dollie and go-cart. Her stocking is small but you can put them under the foot of her bed. Good-bye Sanrta Claus; from your loving little friend, Orville E. Burns, 202 Front St., Oregon City, Oregon. P.S. - Please bring Emma Ellis a real live horse. She wants one."

Oregon City courier. (Oregon City, Or.) 1902-1919, December 18, 1908, Image 3

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:

Clipping reads: "First Santa Claus Letter is Received. Washington, Dec. 7 - Postmaster General Hitchcock received the first Santa Claus letter from a little girl in Camptilla, who declares she is bedridden with a broken hip. Hitchcock is not decided whether to send the Santa Claus letters to the dead letter office or give them to charity organizations."

East Oregonian : E.O. (Pendleton, Umatilla Co., Or.) 1888-current, December 07, 1912, EVENING EDITION, Image 1.

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:

Clipping reads: "But here is the most remarkable letter in the collection, considering the age of the writer. It was probably written by an obliging older sister, but the request in it is quite original. 'Dear Santa Clause. I've been waiting for you for a long time. I am nine months old. I want a trunk fill of silk dresses and a necklace with my Mothers picture and a ring, with a ruby. I've been a awful good girl. From Arvilla.'"

The Sunday Oregonian. (Portland, Ore.) 1881-current, December 21, 1919, SECTION THREE, Image 56

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:

Clipping reads: "Dear Santa, I have not been a very good boy this year, but I would like something. I would like some tinker toys. Please bring my mommie a mink coat and my daddy a Cad. Please bring my sister a teddy bear. Bring my  neighbor Elvis Presley. (It does not have to be gift wrapped.) Bring my dog a bone, my cat a mouse, and my squirrel a nut. - Robert Wasner. P.S. Please don't forget my tinker toys."

Rogue news. (Ashland, Or.) 19??-????, December 19, 1956, Image 3

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!

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