Isabella asked for something to help cheer up her out-of-work grandmother, who is sick with Covid-19 and diagnosed with eye cancer.
“I wish my mom could have something nice for Christmas,” wrote eight-year-old Dylan, who wrote that his mother lost her job in the middle of the pandemic.
“My whole family is sick,” wrote Jasmin, who asked for a science kit and presents for her brother and sister, who likes Harry Potter.
Their letters all start the same: “Dear Santa.”
For more than 100 years, thousands of children’s letters to Santa Claus have been collected, and answered, by the US Postal Service and volunteer letter-adopting “elves” who collect gifts from an adopted wishlist and mail them on Santa’s behalf.
This year, nearly 24,000 people have adopted letters to Santa, intercepted by the USPS on their way to the agency’s dedicated North Pole address, as part of its Operation Santa programme. By 21 December, more than 20,000 packages had been sent.
Despite a calamitous 2020, marred by a public health emergency that has upended the lives of families across the country, the mission under the nation’s postal agency – while enduring multiple crises, from election fallout to cost-cutting measures under Donald Trump’s administration and an overwhelming surge in online orders that have flooded USPS capacity – remains unchanged.
Many of their letters reflect their loneliness and fears, the anxiety and stress they have witnessed in their families, and their grief after the loss of their loved ones. Their letters reveal families experiencing homelessness, parents and caregivers who lost their jobs, and how Covid-19 has devastated their families, including the deaths of parents and grandparents.
They wrote to Santa for a new mattress for their mother, for help paying rent, for hand sanitizer, for a vaccine, for the health of everyone impacted by the coronavirus, and to be able to see their friends and go back to school, alongside their hopes for a Nintendo Switch, a trampoline, a puppy and a Transformers toy.
“Don’t worry about me this year, I just want my mom to stop crying,” wrote Preston.
“Can you please find a cure for Covid-19,” asked Jonah, “and give it to us to save the world.”
“Don’t forget your mask,” wrote another child.
The century-old programme has survived through several national disasters, often reflected in the letters it receives every Christmas. The hardships and urgency among American children in letters from 2020 – captured digitally from across the US for the first time – have echoed in letters from previous years.
“A lot of the letters we’re getting – it’s the same theme we see every year,” said USPS spokesperson Kim Frum.
“A lot of people are barely scraping by,” she told The Independent. “The holidays are the one time of year, no matter your station of life, you deserve some joy, to celebrate some happiness.”
Many desperate families also have written to Santa asking for help, eight months into a pandemic that has only worsened, with an administration behind the failed federal response refusing to acknowledge the crisis.
“It’s difficult trying to make ends meet during these trying times,” wrote Glenda, a single mother to four children. “I’m writing this letter in hopes of giving my children somewhat of a normal Christmas this year with your help.”
More than eight million Americans have fallen into poverty since May, according to the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University.
Four days before Christmas, Congress approved a $900bn relief package extending federal unemployment benefits for 11 weeks and a moratorium on evictions, along with a one-time $600 direct payment for most Americans.
A laborious deal – reached days before jobless aid expired for roughly 12 million people as the pandemic worsens – followed months of negotiations among lawmakers, as a GOP-controlled Senate refused to adopt House measures initially passed in the spring.
Operation Santa has operated as both a seasonal lifeline and a magical answering service for decades, through economic disasters, wars and pandemics.
In 1912, after letters to Santa started to appear at what was then the US Post Office Department, Postmaster General Frank Hitchock authorised employees and citizens to respond. By 1940, the postal service invited charitable organisations to participate, providing responses and small gifts to letter writers.
But until 2017, the programme was limited to only three physical locations, where people would flip through books of letters, take one to the service counter and fulfil the request on Santa’s behalf.
That year, the postal service launched an online pilot project, which expanded to seven cities through an online portal in 2018, then 17 cities in 2019, opening up the opportunity for anyone in the US to adopt a letter.
In 2018, with only seven cities, more than 2,800 packages were sent. Nearly 13,000 letters were adopted in 2019, when the programme included just 17 cities. More than 11,000 packages were sent that year.
“Based on the last three years of testing, we opened letter writing and adoption nationwide” for 2020, Ms Frum said.
In 2020, the website received more than 1 million site visits and 42,000 letter adopters, or more than one for every letter submitted.
The USPS redacts all personal identifying information before uploading letters to its website. Adoptions opened on 4 December and closed on 19 December. Adopting “elves” who sign up for the programme and are vetted by the agency can select a letter, or letters, then buy gifts on their wish lists and mail them, as an assist to Santa.
“It would not be as successful as it is if not for the massive generosity” of letter adopters, Ms Frum said. “So many people want to provide that one day of happiness. It’s such a huge thing.”