Review: “Dear Santa”

Every year, thousands upon thousands of children write letters to Santa Claus, asking for him to make his Christmas wishes come true. But where do all those letters go? One might call to mind the climactic courtroom scene at the end of “Miracle on 34th Street,” when postal workers deliver huge bags of letters addressed to Santa to the courtroom to prove that the man on trial is the real Santa Claus. In reality, the United States Postal Service has collected those letters for their Operation Santa program, which has been in effect for the last 107 years. Every year, postal workers serve as Santa’s elves, helping to grant the wishes that children ask for in their letters. These letters go up at the beginning of December for anyone to peruse and adopt in person or online (the program went digital starting in 2017) and the adopter is able to grant the wish however they see fit.

Dana Nachman’s DEAR SANTA. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

This process is chronicled in the heart-warming new documentary “Dear Santa,” which is directed by Dana Nachman (who also helmed the feel-good docs “Pick of the Litter” and “Batkid Begins”). For “Dear Santa,” Nachman and her team filmed Operation Santa’s 2019 season, starting the week before Thanksgiving all the way through Christmas Day. The film zeroes in on a handful of different Operation Santa branches from around the country, from small towns to big cities like New York and Chicago, telling the stories of how people got involved and why, such as a school hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, and a man who had his wish granted by Operation Santa elves when he was an underprivileged child. The film also follows various kids and families as they describe what they want for Christmas and why. Some of them want the usual toys; some of them ask for a little something different, like Christopher, who asked for 10 Dutch bunnies, and Bryan, who asked for a limo ride for him and his family. Many of these children come from difficult circumstances—a couple of the families involved lost their homes in the recent California wildfires. And the film points out that anyone can write to Santa, not just kids; one woman expecting a child asked Santa for some basic necessities, including a crib for her baby.

“Dear Santa” culminates with us seeing many of these donors succeed at raising all the funds they need for gifts, and many of the letter writers getting their wishes fulfilled. Naturally from a story-telling standpoint the film chooses to focus on some of the more emotional stories, but it does so without ever feeling sappy or manipulative. That’s because every moment of this film is filled with genuine love, right from the beginning, where we see young children being interviewed about their conceptions about Santa. The film’s chronological format also helps gives the viewer a well-rounded idea of what Operation Santa is and how it works, not to mention giving the film a heightened sense of tension as some of the letter adopters come down to the wire securing donations for gifts. Nachman, as well as everyone interviewed in the film, also succeed at not spoiling anything about Santa, so children as well as adults can enjoy the movie.

Dana Nachman’s DEAR SANTA. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

“Dear Santa” was filmed before we had any idea how dark this year was going to be, but that makes it all the more poignant. It restores faith in humanity, seeing so many people, of all ages and from all backgrounds, go above and beyond to help others, and to watch all the happy faces of children and their families seeing their Christmas wishes come true. The elves at Operation Santa are keeping the spirit of Santa alive and well in the hearts of families everywhere, and I hope “Dear Santa,” besides being incredibly entertaining and inspiring, raises awareness for this organization that neither I nor many others I’ve spoken to had never heard of before now. It helps families, and it also helps one of America’s oldest and most important institutions, the USPS, who we all know has struggled this year. Hopefully, Santa will have a lot of new elves in 2020.

“Dear Santa” will open in select theaters and on demand on December 4. Operation Santa also begins on December 4, when elves will be able to begin adopting letters and sending out gifts (due to the pandemic, the adoption process will be all digital this year). For more information, visit www.USPSOperationSanta.com.

Runtime: 84 minutes. Not rated.

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