How Trump Almost Sabotaged the U.S. Postal Service’s Operation Santa

Dana Nachman
Courtesy of IFC Films
Courtesy of IFC Films

What a year to be making a film about the United States Postal Service.

I’d like to say I planned this whole thing—directing a movie about a little known USPS program called Operation Santa in a year when they became the center of a political maelstrom. But I had no idea what 2020 would bring when we shot the film in the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas last year.

Dear Santa centers on the USPS, an institution that seemed at points this year to hold our democracy in the balance. As 2020 got underway and we were in full throttle with post-production, we would read the headlines about the political machinations driving events at the USPS, with President Trump confessing to withholding federal aid for the USPS in order to sabotage mail-in voting, but our focus was on something more durable and timeless: the hundreds of thousands of letters that get sent directly to Santa each year and what the postal service does with them.

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Yes, there are all the trappings of your favorite family Christmas film in Dear Santa… cute kids, the emotional wants and needs of people, and lots of magic and whimsy to go around. But at the heart of this film are the dozens of USPS workers who spend their busiest time of the year not only doing their jobs, but also helping families in need. This program has lived under the radar for 108 years. Focusing on it this year seems extra poignant, as many of the USPS employees have gone the extra mile for us in the pandemic while the organization is being used as a political football.

USPS employees have been on the frontlines of the pandemic since its onset, resulting in more than 10,000 coronavirus cases and 80 deaths within the organization. It was not lost on me and my crew that while we were editing our film in the safety of our homes, the USPS employees that so graciously let us into their world over the holidays were both risking their health and fighting just to do their jobs. They were politicized at every turn and suffering because of it. Still, every day they worked to get us our mail, our prescriptions, and our endless Amazon packages as we quietly worked on Dear Santa.

Throughout the last hundred years that Operation Santa has been active our nation has seen many dark times. I would say 2020 rivals any of these dark periods. One in eight families don’t have enough to eat. We have more than 3.5 million people out of work. We have more than 260,000 people dead from COVID-19. That’s 260,000 families in mourning right now. We have millions of people struggling to celebrate this holiday season. Compared to last year, more letters are coming into Santa this time around.

As part of making this film, USPS gave me unfettered access to Operation Santa. We were given access to read the thousands of letters that came into the USPS and then were able to follow the most compelling ones.

As far as how the program works, once the letters addressed to Santa come in to the USPS they are funneled to a special team that handles them. Santa “approved” this program back in 1912, telling Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock that he was authorized to allow postal employees and citizens to help him respond to letters. This meeting more than 100 years ago became what is known today as Operation Santa.

Today many cities have lead elves (who are of course approved by Santa). These lead elves help all those who want to take part and adopt letters. In our film, you will meet the lead elves in New York City, Chicago, Chico, California, and Pearce, Arizona.

Several years ago Santa decided to go digital due to the volume of letters. The mailroom elves, who you meet in the film, digitize the letters so that anyone anywhere can adopt a letter. This modernization of the program will help out greatly this year while we are all at home because of COVID-19. Once the letters go live, anyone can read and adopt the Operation Santa letters right from their couch.

Reading the letters that come in to Santa was a profound experience for me. It is a very personal look into the psyche of our country, with many letters from young people, but also older people too. We can read about their hopes and dreams as well as their wants and needs. It really hammers home how many people are in need in America.

The mission of the program has always been to provide the public with the chance to be an elf and help children and families to have a magical holiday when otherwise they might not. Helping Santa answer all of his letters might seem like a small gesture, but this is a pay-it-forward program that is propelled by many postal employees—in their off-hours—who earn modest salaries and still give back. As one of the elves in our film says, “It’s not what you have that matters but what you do with what you have.” USPS workers are and have been making little gestures in the name of Christmas cheer over the years that add up to a humongous operation and show of goodwill that is showcased in our life-affirming film.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy of IFC Films</div>
Courtesy of IFC Films

Some might say that Dear Santa is a puff piece for the USPS that is conveniently timed when they needed it most. But I say this little-known story has been right under our noses for decades and no one had asked for permission to document it until 2018, when I sent an email to their press office for access.

To kick off the production of our film I was invited to USPS headquarters in Washington, D.C., last fall. I received a download of all things Operation Santa and USPS history. It was there that our hosts told us about the simple mission of their organization, “To bind the nation.” I have to admit I thought it was a little hokey at the time. A year later and after all that we have been through as a country, I one hundred percent feel their mission and have watched firsthand, as we all have, that in good times and hard times USPS delivers. In a year that has broken so much of our country in half, everyday when I walk around my neighborhood and see their trucks still chugging along, I know it hasn’t broken one of our country’s most important institutions—the USPS.

Dear Santa will be released Dec. 4 nationwide anywhere that you rent or buy movies. Watch the film and then become an elf. We promise this is a restorative and empowering way to end a year that has been so difficult for so many of us.

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