Review: A Spoiler-Free Christmas Documentary, Dear Santa Is Full of the Holiday Spirit We All Need Right Now

Often the lone voice of reason amidst the government’s confused and insufficient response to the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci (director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) recently made the entirely wholesome and delightfully gracious proclamation that Santa Claus himself has an innate immunity to COVID-19 and will be able to fulfill his holiday duties this year as planned. In a year where so much is uncertain and parents everywhere have had to figure out how to explain a global pandemic to their children, it’s a small kindness that will make Christmas in households across the country just a bit closer to normal this year. And at a time when we could all use that bit of extra cheer, a film like Dear Santa delivers a dose of serotonin that might just put you in the Christmas spirit after all.

Dear Santa
Image courtesy of IFC Films

Written and directed by Dana Nachman (who also made 2018’s feel-good Pick of the Litter about puppies on their journey to becoming guide dogs), Dear Santa marries the childlike wonder of Christmas with the spirit of charity that this time of year brings out in anyone but the grinchiest among us. The film centers on Operation Santa, the program run by the USPS to match letters to Santa with “elves” who can make a kid’s (or family’s) wish come true on Christmas morning. The natural recipient of thousands of letters mailed to Santa every year, the USPS started Operation Santa in 1912 in order to respond to the many, many requests they received from children and families in need of a little extra support during the holidays. Over a hundred years later, the program now digitizes letters, matches children with “elves” across the country and makes it possible for Santa to visit every household who believes.

Nachman recounts the history of the program through a series of informative (and festive) slides interspersed throughout the film, and it’s all a welcome introduction to a program worthy of attention. But what makes the film a true testament to the strength of the human spirit and our ability—our need—to look out for each other is its focus on the everyday postal workers, community members and individuals who make Operation Santa happen, the generous souls who organize letter adoption drives and fundraisers for gift shopping. There’s Janice, Chicago’s “lead elf” who oversees the city’s Operation Santa program in her elf costume (complete with jingle bells and jester hat) with so much Christmas spirit it practically radiates off her. There’s Damion, an elf in New York (with a back story that’ll break your heart) who organizes letter writing for community kids then galvanizes his networks to donate to the cause and adopt their wishes. From families who create a make-shift Santa’s workshop in their basement to organize piles of gifts for dozens of recipients to the animal-loving couple in Michigan who make one very special wish come true for one very sweet boy, it’s almost too much sweetness for one heart to handle.

A cynic would make the case that something is fundamentally broken in our society when a charitable program like Operation Santa needs to exist at all, that new mothers seeking to furnish their apartments shouldn’t have to rely on the kindness of strangers to fulfill their basic needs. And you know, they’re not wrong. It shouldn’t be this way. But in the absence of a systemic change from the bottom up, programs like Operation Santa—and the generous people who make them possible—are often a welcome source of support for neighbors who need it. And in Dear Santa, a spoiler-free, warm-hearted, deeply touching film about the goodness we’re all capable of, the holiday cheer extends far beyond the screen to life spirits in desperate need of a pick-me-up.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s still time to adopt a letter and I, for one, plan to do just that.

Dear Santa is now available on VOD.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone