What letters to the North Pole tell us about America.
Dec 7, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 13 • By RACHEL DICARLO CURRIE
Whenever I feel a twinge of despair over America’s challenges—a not infrequent occurrence—I ask myself a simple question: “What year or decade would you like to return to?” It’s a useful exercise for anyone harboring undue pessimism about the future or gauzy nostalgia for the past. Americans have a tendency to take much of our long-term economic, technological, medical, and social progress for granted, while assuming that our current problems will only get worse. History shows that such fatalism is unwarranted.
For example: In 1991—the year that America’s violent-crime rate reached its highest level on record—no one could have predicted the massive, nationwide crime drop that was about to begin. Likewise, as late as 2010—when the International Energy Agency’s chief economist declared that “the age of cheap oil is over”—few people could have foreseen the impact of the shale revolution. Of course, sometimes things do get worse: A half-century after Daniel Patrick Moynihan sounded the alarm over nonmarital childbearing, more than 40 percent of U.S. births occur outside marriage. Meanwhile, the labor-force-participation rate among prime working-age men is hovering near all-time lows, and deaths from heroin use have been skyrocketing.
The point is: Different metrics tell different stories about how our country has changed, for better and for worse, over the past several decades. Thus, a one-dimensional narrative of decline or triumph is misleading.
All of this may seem a strange way to introduce a book entitled Letters to Santa Claus. Yet while reading it I kept thinking of our journey as a nation: where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going. The title is not a metaphor; this really is a collection of letters and envelopes—more than 250 in total—that were addressed to Santa Claus and forwarded by the post office to the town of Santa Claus, Indiana (population 2,500). It includes a foreword by Pat Koch, founder of the town’s Santa Claus Museum & Village, who started helping her father answer the Santa Claus letters in the 1940s. Koch’s father was Raymond Joseph “Jim” Yellig, who dressed up as Santa, worked at Santa Claus Land, and “was truly the face of Santa Claus, Indiana, for many, many years.”
Spanning nine decades, from the 1930s through the 2010s, the letters provide a window into the ever-shifting economic and cultural landscape of modern America. They are alternately silly and somber, hilarious and heartfelt. In a letter from the Depression era, a 9-year-old girl in Woodstock, Maryland, asks Santa to bring her brothers and sisters some winter clothes, lamenting that “we are poor and got no money for toys or candy.” She then lists the names and ages of her siblings before adding, “and the others are dead”—delivering an abrupt reminder that child mortality was considerably more commonplace in the 1930s than it is today. (Between 1935 and 2010, the mortality rate among American children aged 1 to 4 fell by 94 percent.)
By the 1950s, America was a richer, healthier place, yet still poor by the standards of 2015. In 1953, an 8-year-old Chicago girl tells Santa that “our daddy still doesn’t come home and mama cries at night when she thinks we are asleep, because she has no money for our coats and shoes and some dolls for Christmas.” One wonders if this girl had lost her father in the Korean War. In 1970, another Chicagoan, a father with eight children, earnestly asks Santa to help his family meet their basic food and clothing needs, explains that they don’t own a house or car—and then feels compelled to add: “We do not get any help or aid from the city.”
To be sure, there is lighter fare here, such as a letter from a cheeky husband in Pittsburgh requesting “some lovely new lingerie” for his wife, a letter from a 10-year-old Kansas girl warning Santa to “be careful this month and don’t break your leg,” and another from an Ohio girl asking if Santa was around “when the dinosaurs lived.” And it’s interesting to see how the quantity and sophistication of children’s gift requests have increased over time. In 2008, a boy from Campbellsville, Kentucky, asks Santa for a $479 laptop computer, a laptop case (“It’s only $15.00 so I can pay for it my self”), a $29.96 wireless Internet connection card, and a $69.98 two-year service plan. If these items prove too expensive, he says in a postscript, “tell my mom and dad to deduct the money from my birthday and next years Christmas.”
. . . Or has it?9:29 AM, Nov 10, 2015 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
It seems like the Christmas season starts a little earlier each year. A couple years back I was shocked when Costco put out Christmas items the week after Halloween; now the Christmas decorations are on sale weeks before trick-or-treating. And this year, even the War on Christmas has come early.
7:35 AM, Dec 27, 2014 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
An estimated 90 million of us will drive 50 miles or more during this holiday season, and recent years’ gnashings of teeth at the pump are being replaced with smiles. The price of gasoline is down 36 percent since April, to a national average of around $2.40 per gallon, with some cities reporting prices of below $2.
Joseph Bottum counts the days Jan 5, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 17 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
until after Christmas.
Christmas doesn’t really begin until Christmas—Christmas Day itself, that is. And I don’t mean just in the way the Christian churches lay out the season: the whole 12-days-of-Christmas thing, if you remember. And I know you do, because everyone remembers the song about the partridge in a pear tree, which is what our loves would give us on the first day of Christmas, if they were true.
3:45 PM, Nov 22, 2014 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
Some 140 million bargain-hunting customers will descend on retailers on Thanksgiving Day, so-called Black Friday, and throughout next weekend -- or at least those who haven’t shopped already or by early next week will head for the shops. Not so long ago most stores remained closed on Thanksgiving Day, on the assumption that families preferred to spend the holiday enjoying uninterrupted togetherness, downing some 46 million turkeys and watching football. No longer. Walmart, Macy’s, and many others are opening their doors on the holiday.
1:13 PM, Dec 27, 2013 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
Once again, Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut is on the case. Last week, his heart ached for fans of the Buffalo Bills who would not be able to watch their team’s game against the Miami Dolphins because the NFL & the FCC were blacking it out. Retribution, it seems, for the fans’ failure to fill the stadium.
9:31 AM, Dec 25, 2013 • By TWS PODCAST
The WEEKLY STANDARD podcast with editor William Kristol on Christmas, Obamacare, and the gift that keeps on giving.
12:00 AM, Dec 21, 2013 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
Years ago, when Americans began visiting Europe in significant numbers, they invariably returned with trophies ranging from cashmere sweaters (Britain), silk scarves (France), several inches on their waistlines (Italy), and assorted knick knacks.
Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
The Scrapbook is delighted to commend to readers a new ebook from our contributing editor Joseph Bottum.
9:12 AM, Dec 10, 2013 • By JERYL BIER
The White House has not even officially introduced the 2013 White House Holiday Card yet and already Monday night copies were listed for sale on eBay for as much as $200. The card is quite elaborate based on the standards of previous years.
12:00 AM, Nov 23, 2013 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
Go into almost any shop and hear Christmas carols and read signs trumpeting enormous discounts. Unusual, since the scramble for discounts traditionally begins after, not before, the first turkey has made the ultimate sacrifice to celebrants of Thanksgiving. By the end of next week, 45 million turkeys will have moved from farm to plate to palate, and the discount wars will be in full flow.
12:00 AM, Nov 16, 2013 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
In Geneva, the famous “Pink Star” diamond fetches $83 million at auction, almost double the price ever paid for such a stone, and in Arkansas, Walmart lowers its sales outlook for the holiday season. That might be a metaphor for the holiday shopping season, where grouchy retailers are predicting a relatively tiny 3 percent increase in sales over last year.
8:19 AM, Dec 26, 2012 • By DANIEL HALPER
President Obama, who is vacationing with his family in Hawaii, visited the Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe Bay to wish everyone there a merry Christmas.
"First of all, we want to say Merry Christmas to everybody," Obama said, with his wife Michelle at his side. "This looks like it was a nice rather than naughty crowd so I’m sure Santa treated you well."
10:21 AM, Dec 24, 2012 • By DANIEL HALPER
According to a statement from the South African government, Nelson Mandela will "spend Christmas Day in [a] hospital."
"Former President Nelson Mandela will spend Christmas Day in hospital, his doctors have confirmed today, on 24 December 2012," the statement reads, according to BNO News. "President Mandela has been in a Pretoria hospital since the 8th of December and doctors say he continues to respond to treatment.