Dear Santa: For Goodness’ Sake, by David Bax
Dana Nachman’s sweet and uplifting documentary Dear Santa does not waste its energy trying to pretend it’s anything other than a recruitment ad for the United States Postal Service’s Operation Santa program. And why should it? Not only is it a program worth advocating for but at the end of a year in which it’s been unfairly vilified by some with nefarious motives, the Postal Service could use the good press.
Every year, families who could use some help with Christmas gifts encourage their kids to write letters to a specific address. Those letters–or as many of them as possible–are then “adopted” by “elves” who do their best to get these kids the things they want. Dear Santa follows a handful of participants on both sides of the equation, with a countdown to Christmas acting as the plot mechanism.
That’s a setup for pretty much nonstop cuteness and big feelings and Dear Santa delivers on both. Heartstrings get tugged by the stories of families who have suffered loss and hardship and those committed to helping them out. But that emotional wringer is tempered by kids being adorable, like when we are reminded that, no matter what else is in the box, the joys of bubble wrap are universal. My personal favorite, though, is the kid whose list consists of “10 Dutch bunnies, food for Dutch bunnies, a book on how to take care of Dutch bunnies,” etc.
Nachman’s most important swing at cuteness (and the one that makes Dear Santa fun for viewers of all ages) is her commitment to not breaking kayfabe. Postal employees introduce themselves as elves and claim to be taking their directives straight from Santa himself. Like the adults talking at a family holiday gathering, the movie trusts you to read between the lines. Even the older kids who ask for gifts for their siblings are in on the game.
If there’s anything in Dear Santa that brings out my inner Scrooge, it’s the number of letters that illustrate not just how materialistic but how corporatized our culture is. Many children believe that their Christmas just won’t be a merry one if they don’t have not just things but the things with the right branding, from PAW Patrol to Xbox. Mercifully, though, those aren’t the letters Nachman chooses to follow, focusing instead on simple, often selfless requests.
What most warms the heart, though, is not the kids having their Christmases made, it’s the stories of the volunteers who make that happen. By and large, they are folks of modest means themselves, from survivors of childhood poverty who hold fundraisers to church groups and unions who pitch in en masse. Dear Santa is reminder of the usefulness of empathy and the power of collective action.