Dear Santa

James O'Brien

So you've always wanted to live out the scene in Miracle on 34th Street, the one where the cops dump all the kids' letters to Santa in front of the judge. You've wondered what it would be like to rifle through bags of those sweet missives, just to see what sorts of innocent longing you might find. Be careful what you wish for, is what I say.

I did it. I asked Santa's helpers if I could take a peek. I looked at letters from the downtown Minneapolis Marshall Field's, Burnsville Center, and the Mall of America, out of which I walked with six bagfuls of the sacred texts. Then I plopped them down on my desk and dug in. I'm not saying I got all misty-eyed or anything, but after a certain point of reading hundreds of young believers' notes, written carefully or hastily in crayon or pen or computer font or illegible kid script or perfect parents-manship on stationery or cards or cardboard or check stubs, there is simply no avoiding the transformation that happens, and the fact that after about letter 50 you are no longer a professional voyeur or part-time gumshoe, you are Him. And with that Himness comes some responsibility.

"I love you, Santa," says one, and that's all it says. In a plain white envelope, marked "From David," in dirty smudged pencil. I love you, too, David, you mutter, and you hope David hears you, and you thank David for not asking for a Swan Lake Barbie or a Hotwheels set or a Game Boy Advance or a remote control Zamboni, and you love him for not sending you a catalog with every page circled, or saying "I want" 17 times in a row, or a list with 154 items, because you get that a lot this time of year.

Which is okay. It's your job. So is reading self-flagellation like, "Thank you for all the presents you gave me last year. I am trying to be better this year" (Cole); "Thank you for all my presents you gave me last year. I am being good and trying to share with my brother more" (Jena); "I have been good but not perfect" (Kayla); "I have been a very good boy this year. I share toys with my friends. I take turns. I'm nice to my sister. I pick up my toys. I listen to Mommy and Daddy. I don't have tantrums" (Matthew); "This year I have been working very hard in school and had a great report card" (Will); "I've been pretty good this year. I'm trying to be better all the time" (unsigned); "I am pretty good most of the time" (Ryan); "I am working on being good + doing what mommy tells me. I'm cleaning up. Love Molly."

You tell Molly that you hope she gets over her drug addiction in the new year, and you'll want to tell all of them that being good is overrated and behaving is a relative thing, and that tantrums are okay and that they should all relax and ho-ho-ho a lot more and pay attention to Luke, who wants only "a disco ball," or Bryce, who'd like "Guitar with amplifier. Guitar + microphone. Pirate Boat." Or Luke, who writes, "Santa can you leave a note to my mom that when I grow up to be about 10 that I would really, really, really want to be a rock star. Can you leave the note by the tray where the cookies were. Thank you."

You will be inundated with requests for all the hot new toys, which are too dull to mention, but also for stuff like "big castle that I can fit in" (Sam); "a real pet dolphin" (John); "a nice horse that talks and walks" (unsigned); "books to learn how to teach a hamster how to be potty trained and go to the bathroom in the plastic hamster toilet" (Snowflake); "a bed just the right size that Rusty can fit in" (Amanda); "a pig's ear" (Pepper); "a fancy cowboy suit" (Dustin); "cat" (Travis); "fish tank with a fish" (Emily), and "an unlimited supply of chocolate chips" (Max).

You will want to say, Don't we all baby? to Grace when she writes, "I want it all for Christmas." But even more, you will want to hang out with five-year-old Eric, an ascetic-in-training who seems to want for absolutely nothing, because all he needs is, "Some ideas from you. You pick."

I pick? Okay. What I want is more Eric and less of the likes of the unsigned one that goes, "I need a remote control monster truck, red siren, U.S.A. flag, helicopter, toy airplane, toy tank, remote car or truck that transforms when it smashes." I also could use the wisdom to know what to do with this one, which isn't the only one that ends the way it does:

"Patrick's Christmas list: 1. Michael Vick jersey (black) ($40). 2. Fox invert beanie (red reversible) ($20). 3. Infusion football (junior all pro) ($18). 4. Philips earphones ($15). 5. Holes (DVD) ($18). 6. Adidas basketball bag ($30). 7. Lizzie McGuire DVD ($18). 8. Vikings calendar ($8). 9. School of rock soundtrack ($18). 10. Jigsaw puzzle of New York (?). 11. Jenga truth or dare (?). 12. Football cards ($3). 13. Family feud (?). 14.Tech Deck mini skateboard ($4). PS I hope my Dad gets a job."

You move on. To Alex, who writes, "Dear Santa Claus, thank you for the power ranger fighting battle station and I bet Tanner says thank you for the four wheeler. I don't know what I want for Christmas. I don't know what Tanner wants either."

You tell Alex and Tanner Welcome to the human race, because nobody ever really knows what they want. Even adults. We all just flail around wanting stuff, never satisfied, filling our gaping consumer souls with dreams of Bose stereo systems, unlimited gift certificates to independent book and record stores, courtside basketball seats, intensely sensual experiences that involve candles, wine, lotion, chocolate, um, never mind. Point being, stuff won't make you happy. Just listen to Britta, who writes, "I have been a very good girl this year, and I was sad today."

You will take her seriously. You will want to make her less sad if you can. You will also take it seriously when Chris writes only, "Just surprise me. Ho ho ho," and draws a picture of him and you with your arms around each other. You will take it seriously when Nathan asks for a present for his mom and dad and cat and a special nuk for the babies, and calls you "the best Santa that ever livd."

You correct Nathan, gently but firmly. You tell him that you are not the best Santa who ever livd, you are the only Santa who ever livd. Then you return the letters to Santa's helpers, who insisted you do so by "Christmas Eve, so Santa can do his job." Then you write them up in the newspaper and try to wash your hands of them, but you can't, so what you do is you put on your boots, feed the reindeer, and get ready to fly.

Jim Walsh can be reached at [email protected] or 612.372.3775.

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