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‘From Santa with Love’

Students find humor and poignancy answering children’s letters to St. Nick

12/15/11
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Students in Rubenstein Hall write “letters from Santa” to special needs children from low-income families. (Photo by Frank Curran)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Dec. 15, 2011

Approximately 20 Boston College undergraduates gathered in Rubenstein Hall on a recent afternoon to write some letters using an assumed name: Santa Claus.
  
The students replied to Christmas correspondence from almost two dozen special needs children from low-income Rhode Island families. The children had been learning how to write letters in school, and their teachers thought that penning a note to Santa would be a good way to practice.
  
Rubenstein Resident Assistant Katherine Beckett — who had contacts with the teachers through her past work with special needs children — had an even better idea: Why not have Santa write the kids back?   
  
A Seekonk, Mass., native who is pursuing a combined BA/MA in history at BC, Beckett remembered receiving letters from St. Nick through the US Postal Service’s “Operation Santa.” What she didn’t know then was that her aunt, a local postmaster, was the author: “She would always write personalized notes to the children, including me. I was amazed that Santa knew how I did on every spelling test!
  
“I really enjoyed having a personal letter from Santa, and since the USPS no longer runs Operation Santa in every town, I thought that it'd be a good idea to organize a program for my residents to give back this season.”
  
Lindsay Thomann, a Connell School of Nursing senior from Saugus, Mass., jumped at the chance. “I thought about how I felt each year at this time, writing my long letter to Santa and mailing it hoping that he would get it in time. I thought this would be a fun way to give back and make some children very happy around the holidays.”
  
As one might expect, many of the letters were full of youthful charm, curiosity and solicitousness: one boy asked for a real dinosaur (if none were available, however, an action figure was acceptable); some children requested presents for siblings or pets; one child described his behavior for the past year as “nice — most of the time.”  
  
Senior Tori Willingham read a letter from a little girl who expressed concern about Santa’s weight but promised to leave half a cookie anyway: “We weren't sure where the other half of the cookie would be,” said Willingham, a psychology major with a minor in education from Bethesda, Md.
  
“The little girl I responded to thanked Santa for all the gifts she had received over the years and drew a picture of a reindeer and a Christmas tree,” said Thomann. “I commented on her outstanding artwork and told her about how the reindeer were doing and how excited they were getting for Christmas as well.”
  
But the letters also bore indications of familial and personal hardships: One girl asked to reunite with her parents, whom she hadn’t seen “in a long time,” and another hoped to see her father after three years of separation; a boy said he would love any presents, said Willingham, “but his mom told him there wouldn't be a lot because she had to buy a new couch last week.”
  
A letter from a girl who mentioned her mother was out of work troubled Erica Reynolds, a senior psychology major from Scarsdale, NY. “I found that profound because when a young child starts worrying about a parent’s employment, it makes me wonder what home life must be for her. The fact that this young child is taking responsibility to worry for her mother reflects an unhealthy mentality. Children are usually inherently selfish — not in a bad way, they just naturally only think of themselves because they have not learned to think of others. What has she seen to lead her to think this way?”  
  
Although there were some guidelines to follow in crafting responses — namely, don’t promise to give kids the gifts they ask for — it was up to each student to rely on his or her creativity and sensitivity.
   
“I made sure to tell them how smart and wonderful, and lucky, their parents were to have them,” said Reynolds.
  
Said Willingham, “I started by answering the questions the kids asked me and then filled in some fun stories about the North Pole. I told the kids that Christmas presents had to stay a secret and I couldn't spoil it just yet, but would do my best to get them presents they would love.”
   
Inevitably, childhood memories of Christmas and Santa beckoned to the BC students — like Willingham, who remembers putting out “reindeer food” along with the requisite cookies and milk, and finding presents wrapped in "Santa's wrapping paper."
  
“My parents went through a lot of planning to ensure our belief in Santa,” she said. “It made the holiday so much more magical for me and my siblings. I hope I got to inspire some of that magic in other kids. I wish I could’ve seen their faces when they got our letters.”