‘Dear Santa’ documentary chronicles Operation Santa to tearjerking effect

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Dear Santa' documentary (Part 1)

Grab the tissues! A tear-jerking documentary arrives Friday with holiday spirit.

“Dear Santa” chronicles Operation Santa, a 100-year-old program by the United States Postal Service, which fields hundreds of thousands of letters to the North Pole each year. Volunteers help folks adopt the letters to make children’s dreams come true.

“For more than 100 years, the USPS has been dealing with those letters, and it has gradually over time become a program called Operation Santa that I learned about eight years ago,” director Dana Nachman told WTOP. “Once I learned about it, I wanted to tell the story about what happens to the letters that get sent to Santa.”

It was serendipitous that she filmed postal workers in the months before the U.S. Postal Service became a political football during an election with mail-in ballots.

“We started doing this before COVID, before all this stuff about the election,” Nachman said. “We were working on the film while all this was happening. It was just this weird, surreal thing that the protagonists of your film are under fire. … We’re so happy that it can come out now … and hopefully give them a little joy and pride for what they do.”

 

As for the letters, the kids ask for a range of presents, including the latest toy crazes.

“You get to know what the cool toy is very quickly,” Nachman said. “Like last year, it was L.O.L. Dolls. I called my daughter from our first shoot like, ‘What are L.O.L. Dolls?’ And she explained it to me. There’s typical Barbies, Legos, tons of iPhones, Xboxes.”

Other kids ask for more dire needs, such as clothing and household necessities.

“One kid wanted a brother,” Nachman said. “There’s really poignant stuff of people, both kids and adults, who are reaching out to Santa for mattresses, refrigerators, clothes, food, stuff like that. As diverse as America is, that’s how diverse these letters are.”

Child interviews are often gold, as they tend to say the darnedest things.

“We wanted to tell the story of Santa and Christmas through the eyes of children,” Nachman said. “We thought, ‘Why don’t we have them describe the world and describe what happens to the letters in their minds?’ … All the interviews that are in front of a fireside [were] done in my living room as prep [before] I got to the classrooms.”

The film also interviews generous adult volunteers, who call themselves “elves.”

One is Damion DiGrazia, who gives back after receiving similar charity as a kid.

“He wrote to Santa and said, ‘Can I please have either an alarm clock or a radio? I want the alarm clock so my mom doesn’t have to worry about getting me up for school and a radio because we don’t have a TV.’ … Santa sent an alarm clock radio. … He started his own nonprofit that now goes into the projects in Harlem [for] gift giving.”

Another adult “elf” is a postal carrier in Chico, California, a town scorched by wildfires.

“She actually has been an elf for Santa for many years, like 10 years,” Nachman said. “She always did it for families around Chico, but then once the wildfires happened in 2017, she started really trying to seek out kids who had lost their homes. Then we come to find out that she also lost her home. In her home she was a toy collector.”

You’ll cry at the delivery of a pet rabbit to a boy who wants a furry friend, a new couch to a family that needs furniture, and a limo ride for a kid who wants to see the big city. Most heartbreaking is a kid who writes, “Do you support the LGBTQ community?”

“In our production meetings, we thought to ourselves, ‘It’d be great if we could make sure the LGBTQ community is represented,'” Nachman said. “Then this letter showed up, so we were like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s so amazing!’ It was such a heart-wrenching moment to think about a child having to worry about whether God loves him.”

Through the tears, you’ll be inspired to get involved by sponsoring a letter yourself.

“You can just go online and apply to Santa to become an elf,” Nachman said. “You can pick letters out yourself that you want to fulfill. It’s so fun. … It’s super fulfilling. I actually did choose a few letters last year, even though I was so busy shooting.”

Visit the Operation Santa website to find out how you can become a sponsor.

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Dear Santa' documentary (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

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