Letters to Santa in Two Pandemics
In 1918 a little girl wrote a letter to Santa as many little girls had before her — but hers came with a warning. After asking for a bed for her doll, Eugenia cautioned Santa, “Please don’t forget the flu at my home. Evelyn and Louise and Verna and mamma all have the flu. Santa, I hope you won’t take the flu.”
The flu, of course, was the dreaded “Spanish Flu,” and by the time Christmas rolled around in 1918, the United States had just seen the highest fatality rate of the whole pandemic. Over a hundred years later — as states across the country see COVID-19 surges — Christmas past feels eerily similar to Christmas present.
In both pandemics, children have written their letters to Santa with more on their mind than sugar plums. And while some letters were written by candle or oil lamps, and others were typed on computers and smartphones, they are strikingly similar.
Well, maybe toys aside.
What was on their Christmas lists?
Children’s letters to Santa have flooded the harried United States Post Office, which has been a workshop in its own right this year. Some of the wish-list items are very much of the 21st century: computers, iPhones, video game consoles like Nintendo Switch/Xbox/PS5, and hover boards. The North Pole must be looking a lot like Silicon Valley these days.
Undoubtedly Santa will reminisce, with that characteristic sparkle in his eye, on how times have changed: in 1918, kids were asking for tiddly-winks, dishes, books, mittens and marbles, tops, dolls and toy soldiers, and stockings filled with goodies like oranges and nuts — which were quite the treat back then. You can tell your kids that next time they won’t eat a healthy snack.
Santa might remember little Charlie Armstrong, Texas (Nice List — just barely) writing in December, 12th, 1918 for “a little knife and some firecrackers and a toy mustache and…a little air gun.” Not exactly common presents now, though surely the elves are happy to be out of the arms-making business. With the Great War on the minds of the young and old alike, many letters to Santa asked for guns and toy soldiers, which aren’t as common on today’s lists.
Coin please — and not the chocolate kind.
Letters today are notable from their 1918 counterparts in another major way — they’re writing Santa for cold, hard cash. “I had an epiphany on what I want, it isn’t happiness or fulfillment like you see in the movies,” Christopher writes from modern-day New York. “All I want for Christmas is a gaming laptop. It costs $2,500 and my family doesn’t have that money.” A king’s ransom in 1918, and a pretty penny today — I hope you’ve been exceedingly good, Christopher.
Money, of course, means more to kids than being able to keep up with the TikTok Jones's; as millions watch their parents lose their jobs from COVID-19, some letters to Santa show the bloom of young financial anxiety. Ten-year-old Julian’s wish “is for money for my parents, $100 would help us a lot. They’re having a rough time with the bills,” he writes.
Asking Santa for money was unthinkable to children in 1918, but weighs heavily on the mind of children this year.
A blue Christmas without you
From sitting on his knee at the mall to writing a private letter, there has always been something in the confessional act of speaking to Santa that makes kids bear their deepest desires, wants, and yes, even fears and sorrows.
In a pandemic the list of fears is especially long.
“I think of the poor little girls and Boys that has no Papa ore (sic) mama the flue (sic) and the war has left them OrPhants (sic),” little Paul admitted to Santa in the Altoona Mirror Newspaper, Dec 24th, 1918. Children of the era felt danger all around them, with threats both close to home with the flu, and for the soldiers abroad, dotting the Western Front in Belgium and France.
Ten-year-old Lola writes from France this year, and tells Santa that her mother is also on the front-lines — but as a care-giver fighting COVID-19. As cases flare across Europe, she too confides in Santa that “sometimes I am afraid for her.”
As holiday parties and gathering get cancelled, isolation also weighs heavy on the minds of pandemic-era children. Deane Smith wrote of his worry of not being able to go home in 1918, telling Santa, “Daddie (sic) has got the flu and I can’t go home so bring me some medicine so he can get well and then I can go home.”
Jonah’s letter to Santa was written a century after Deane’s but feels quite familiar. “I don’t want anything for Christmas,” he writes, “but, I would like to ask if you can do me a favor: can you please find a cure for COVID-19 and give it to us to save the world.”
Joy proves itself to be timeless
Some elements of these pandemic Santa letters prove instantly recognizable, like timeless Christmas carols that are as familiar today, blasting on Spotify, as they were when first sung in piano parlors.
In both pandemics, children’s letters to Santa can feel shockingly, surprisingly, normal. The grim fact that there was — and is — a pandemic around them is covered up like colorful wrapping paper. Many children never mention it to St. Nick, focusing instead on the fast bikes and new games that they hope to see under the tree. In 1918 and 2020, children were still children.
Today as yesterday, there are notes calling Santa their friend, and telling them that they love him. Affection oozes from every note as kids tell him to take care — whether that be in cautioning him to wear a mask (he is high risk, with his advanced age, and all), or to watch out for drones.
And, as ever, they put in the good word for themselves, their friends, siblings and parents; most letters in 1918 asked Santa for gifts for others, one even asking for a milk cow for their neighbor. Comforting to know that times may have changed, but kids are forever good at heart.
What we can learn from the kids, today and yesterday
As lights twinkle on empty streets and scores of us spend the holidays more like Bob Cratchit than Ebenezer Scrooge, it can make finding joy this season difficult. At times, it feels simply impossible. It is comforting to know, however, that the children who wrote Santa during a pandemic a 100 years ago managed to muddle through, somehow. And, against all odds, they’re finding a way to do it now, too.
Pandemics are especially confusing and frightening for children; and yet, there is an unshakable optimism that radiates from the messy scrawl of children writing Dear Santa, today or a hundred years ago. Like Christmas bells that ring through the frosty air, the innocence and honesty of children reverberate through the ages, with letters filled with hope even in the darkest of times.
Even in an uncertain world, they know that Christmas will always come.
Santa will always be there.