Blog post by Johanna Wilson, Social Media Officer
As we entered the warmth of The Goodlife Centre, we were met by the smell of mulled wine and the sight of a wide selection minced pies. A few weeks before Christmas, we were lucky enough to receive a visit from our own version of Father Christmas spreading festive cheer, Ashley March from The Postal Museum. The theme of the evening? The history of letters to Santa in the UK.
We have a definite image in our heads when we think of Father Christmas. He’s jolly, portly, dressed in a red and white suit, and he comes down chimneys to deliver presents to good children. But it’s a bit more complicated than that; Santa Claus wasn’t even the same person as Father Christmas originally! The Santa we know today is a mixture of Roman Saturnalia, Teutonic Yuletide festivals, the Christian Saint Nicholas (dropping dowries down chimneys), Ben Jonson’s Father Christmas and Dutch children putting shoes out for gifts, all coming together and becoming popular in Victoria’s reign.
Most people have written a letter to Santa at some point, asking for gifts small and large from man in the red and white suit. We’re used to the idea that when we write, there’ll be a response. But it is strange when you start to think about it: how on earth did the Royal Mail get involved in responding from Santa?
We don’t know when people started writing their own letters to Santa but we have records of letters in the post from the end of the 19th Century and by the early 1900s, ‘the London GPO was receiving thousands of letters from children addressed to Santa Claus. As the post office weren’t able to send these letters on, they were being returned to sender by the Returned Letter Office (not ideal!). Children weren’t sure where Santa lived but had a rough idea. Guesses ranged from “A Hundred Skies High” to the North Pole to the Moon.
By 1922, there were enough letters received for the GPO’s staff magazine, St Martin’s Le Grand, to print a review of the best letters they’d received the year before. As today, kids varied greatly on what they wanted from Santa. One child asked for a ‘Royal’ Royce – presumably a Rolls – and a tank (which he hopefully did not receive). A particularly sweet-hearted tyke just wanted to ask Santa how he was ‘getting on’. Another even threatened ‘Send me a train before Xmas. Please send it two days before or I will shoot you’ (almost certainly on the naughty list). Mostly though, children asked for the customary Christmas orange and nuts.
Even though they were returning the letters, the Post Office was still associated with Santa as the deliverers of Christmas letters and gifts, and they took advantage of this, using pictures of Father Christmas to remind people to post early.
So what made the Post Office take that final leap and decide that they were going to reply to Santa mail? The French did it first! In 1962, the French government wrote into law that every letter addressed to ‘Le Père Noël’ had to receive a postcard in reply. That year, an enterprising journalist at the Postmaster General’s Christmas Press Conference asked if he would consider setting up a similar scheme in the UK. Caught off-guard by the question, he hedged his bets and said that he was open to the idea but would have to look into it. This set off a storm in a tea cup at the Post Office Headquarters. From January 1963, proposals, suggestions and politely worded arguments whizzed back and forth between various departments about what a potential scheme would look like. A colouring book? Far too expensive, and likely to make things even busier at Christmas. A recording of Santa’s voice? Require a Postal Order like Denmark? A free postcard like New Zealand? The main decision focused around the cost – would children have to pay? But it was decided: ‘the idea of asking children (or their parents) to pay a shilling for a reply from Father Christmas is all wrong’. Once the solicitors confirmed that the scheme was definitely legal (after all, people would be opening Santa’s mail without his permission), the Post Office was ready to start. They had commissioned special postmarks already, as shown here, including a brand new ‘Reindeerland’ cancellation. A secret circular was sent to postmasters across the country in November 1963 to explain what was going to happen, and five clerical assistants were made available at Post Office HQ to open the letters and address replies.
A press release came out on the 12th December from Santa himself, saying: ‘Dear Children, … I am very pleased because now I can write to each of you – but only if you have put your own full address on the letter. The Post Office and I are extremely busy at this time of the year, of course, delivering all your toys and everybody’s presents, and because of this I am unlikely to be able to answer any letters that are posted after today. But those of you who have already written to me and put your address on will, I hope, each get a letter from me from Reindeerland.’ The Post Office expected to send 5,000 letters but underestimated the number of enthusiastic kids who would want a letter from Santa; they received 11,000 letters before the deadline! They had to bring in extra staff but the project was a success with the Post Office receiving thank you letters from young and old alike. The scheme had cost £968, 16 shillings and 5 pence – about 18 and a half thousand pounds today!
Despite the success, the Postmaster General waited until late in 1964 to decide to continue it the next year, aware that to do it two years in a row was to make a commitment to keep doing it from them on. Clearly the Christmas spirit got to him, as it was signed off again in 1964 and has continued ever since. Last year, a total of 600,000 replies from Santa were sent by the British postal service and double that are expected this year. The postcode XM4 5HQ is used specially because no other postcode begins with an X (they scrapped the previous SANTA1 code when a lot of the letters kept ending up in Swansea based on their SA postcode).
Afterwards, we enjoyed our mulled wine and had a final catchup before Christmas. It certainly got us excited for the opening of The Postal Museum, which opens its doors to the general public mid-2017 (and we’ll definitely be going on a trip to the mail rail!)