Not all of Santa’s elves work their magic at the North Pole.
From California to Arizona, from Chicago to New York City, some of Santa’s finest helpers perform miracles every holiday season for thousands upon thousands of children who otherwise might not find anything under the Christmas tree. Pour a cup of cheer and toast filmmaker Dana Nachman for telling the stories of some of these elves and the families who have benefitted from the fruits of their tireless volunteer labor in “Dear Santa,” a sprightly feel-good documentary that comes at a time when we could use a lift — and serves as a reminder there are an awful lot of truly good people in this world.
With bouncy holiday pop tunes such as “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)” and “Reindeer Rock” setting the mostly light and sentimental mood, “Dear Santa” hops about the country, introducing us to the beyond-adorable kids who are writing letters to Santa (or in some cases, helping the grown-ups answer letters to Santa) as well as some of the most dedicated adult “elves,” who never break character when they talk about what it’s like to work for Santa. (Put it this way: The littlest of little ones could watch this movie with the parents and still come away believing in the big guy in the red suit.)
As we learn in a title card, “Back in 1907, Santa reached out to the U.S. Postal Service and asked them to help deliver the thousands of letters he gets every year. Today, their partnership has grown into a massive nationwide program called OPERATION SANTA.”
You probably know how it works, at least on the surface. Kids write letters to Santa, the local post office flags those letters and diverts to volunteers who open the letters, divide them according to the number of kids in a family and/or particular items listed, and then it’s up to goodhearted folks who have a few extra coins in their pocket to “adopt” a family—folks such as Damion, an “Adopter Elf” who rounds up donations for families in a lower-income neighborhood in East Harlem, noting, “Sometimes it can be tough for Santa to get to certain locations.” (The film identifies the adult elves and the members of recipient families by only first names, so we’re going to honor that.)
Meanwhile, at the Cardiss Collins Processing and Distribution Center in Chicago, lead elf Janice is overseeing an operation in which potential adopter elves can walk right in and comb through the letters and, we hope, select a family or two. (Chicago and New York are the last two cities where Operation Santa offers physical hard letters. Everywhere else, the letters have been scanned and digitized for expediency.) Among the most prolific elves: Chicagoans Jen, Matt and Ashley, who in 2006 formed a non-profit so they could answer letters to Santa on a large scale — particularly requests from families with six or seven or eight children.
Director Nachman expertly sprinkles in some “kids say the darndest things” interviews for comic relief, and melts our hearts when we meet the likes of Christopher in El Mirage, Arizona, a sweet and soft-spoken boy who dreams of getting a rabbit for Christmas. “I love rabbits a lot,” he says. “They just fill my heart up with joy.” Christopher recalls going to a pet store and holding a rabbit who didn’t want him to let go; he says quietly, “I felt bad for the guy.”
Spoiler alert: Someone gets a bunny for Christmas, and if you can watch that scene without losing it, you’re an early stage Ebenezer Scrooge, my friend.
Equally touching is a surprise gift of a new puppy to a family in Lansing, Michigan, after the oldest daughter had written a letter to Santa saying he could skip presents for her and even leave her stocking empty if she could see the look on her little siblings’ faces if they got a puppy. When the puppy arrives and children learn it is theirs to keep, the littlest one jumps into her big sister’s arms and says, “We get a puppy!”
I also loved the animal request segment, with the camera zeroing in on handwritten requests for an iguana, a cat, a horse, a “real pig,” a frog, a mouse, a reindeer, “a big moose,” etc. One child puts in a dual request for a dog and a brother, with a P.S.: “The brother thing, mom won’t let me have a brother but dad will.”
Filled with humor and heart and an unabashedly sentimental, can-do spirit, “Dear Santa” is one of the most wonderful films of the year.