Given how it was sabotaged by malevolent forces this past summer — over which its roughly 496,000 hard-working employees had no control — the U.S. Postal Service could use some nice publicity right about now.
|Having decided upon the perfect gift for a needy child, the students in this grade school
classroom busily wrap it, in anticipation of delivery to an Operation Santa drop-off
Documentarian Dana Nachman has delivered just the right package.
Dear Santa — available via Amazon Prime — isn’t merely a charming look at the USPS’ “Operation Santa Claus,” which dates back to 1912. It’s also a reminder — at a time when the opposite too frequently seems to be true — that the world is full of kind, thoughtful, selfless and generous people.
Children began writing letters to Santa right around the time cartoonist Thomas Nast drew an 1871 image of the Jolly Red Elf seated at a desk, reading his mail and sorting it into two labeled piles: “Letters from good children’s parents” and “Letters from naughty children’s parents.” (Nast, something of a curmudgeon, made the latter pile far taller.)
For the next few decades, such Santa mail was considered undeliverable and returned to their senders, or (much worse) consigned to the Dead Letter Office. This changed shortly after the turn of the century, when philanthropists and charities —embracing the notion of fulfilling Santa’s role for poor children who send him letters — pressured the USPS to adopt a kinder, gentler approach. Then-Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock responded by creating the program that now is more than a century old.
Before we go any further: Parents, rest assured that Nachman carefully maintains the all-important notion that the “USPS Elves” depicted here are merely Santa’s helpers, taking instruction from the super-secret enclave somewhere in the North Pole. Youngsters (and wise adults) who still believe in Santa Claus will not have that faith shaken by anything in this film.
Nachman opens with a too-cute-for-words montage of small children discussing all aspects of Santa: his history, what he looks like, how he delivers all those gifts in a single evening, and so forth. Nachman and editor Jennifer Steinman Sternin deftly cut in such a way that these kids finish each other’s thoughts and sentences; the effect is beyond adorable.
Some of the comments also have a classic “Kids Say the Darndest Things” vibe, such as this thought from a little girl named Cassidy: “My cousin met the real Santa, in real life, because he showed her his ID.”
This introductory sequence is merely the first of an increasingly powerful series of aw-shucks moments, during an 84-minute film that could touch even the heart of the crankiest Ebenezer Scrooge in your household.
The shoot took place between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day 2019, with early prep focused on selecting “the most poignant letters we could find,” and then following their progress through various Operation Santa centers throughout the country. Each “branch office” is staffed by a Lead Elf such as Chicago’s jovial Janice, complete with jingle bell-laden costume; and Damion, an “Adopter Elf” who recalls having been blessed when his childhood “Dear Santa” letter brought an unexpected surprise, and now pays it forward by hustling donations for an annually expanding number of lower-income families in East Harlem.
The process is laden with the spirit of Christmas. In Chicago, under Janice’s encouraging gaze, stacks of letters are arranged by a child’s age (if known), family size and so forth. Anybody interested can “adopt” and then fulfill a child’s letter; the challenge, as many of these generous patrons confess, is holding themselves to just one or two. The sweetly innocent pleas are impossible to resist.
Some letters are adopted by school children, as classroom projects … and that’s when the lump truly starts to develop in the throat. Words cannot do justice to the altruistic passion of these kids, decked out in their own elf costumes, and putting serious thought into what sort of gifts would be best for this letter writer, and that one.
Nachman chose her primary writers well, with an engaging blend of poignancy, pathos and even gentle humor. Bryan has always wanted a limo ride around the city. Christopher hopes for 10 (!) Dutch bunnies.
Lorelai, whose family’s house burned down, wants to live back at home.
If the climactic Christmas morning revelations aren’t as spontaneous as one might desire, they’re darn close. (Even with digital equipment, set-up takes a bit of time, and it’s hard not to notice a camera crew approaching the front door.) That said, our final glimpse of Bryan’s quiet, wide-eyed reaction is particularly endearing.
Nachman doesn’t dig too deep here; aside from Damion, we don’t learn much about these Lead Elves. That actually adds to the magic of the holiday spirit; they — and the classrooms full of equally generous children — remind us of the impact that warm, kind-hearted people can have on total strangers. And on themselves.
So: You better not pout, and you better watch this film.