Filmmaker Dana Nachman wanted to make a documentary about the United States Postal Service’s Operation Santa program for years, but it never seemed like the right time. Then in 2018 she got up some courage and decided to cold email the USPS press office.
They responded immediately and agreed to give her and a film crew unprecedented access to the inner workings of this charitable program. But there was one big rule: Don’t ruin Christmas for kids.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of letters to Santa go through the USPS system, asking for everything from toys to food. The program, which has been running in some form for over 107 years, takes letters from kids in need, matches them up with donors and helps make Christmas wishes come true.
“Dear Santa,” out Dec. 4 from IFC Films, takes viewers inside the program showing the kids writing the letters, the postal workers who sort and categorize them (Santa’s helpers) and the adoptees who go out and purchase the gifts they ask for.
“I think a lot of people don’t know it exists,” Nachman said. “I didn’t!”
She and her team began filming last year and had only the couple of weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas to shoot. They had a couple of parameters: She wanted a diversity of locations (cosmopolitan, rural and everything in between) and to focus on what the postal service calls “special requests,” which could be anything from heat to a medical procedure. In other words, they’re wishes that don’t necessarily fit in a box.
“I wasn’t so much interested in the kids asking for toys and iPhones and, believe me, there are a lot,” Nachman said. “We could have done an entire film on people who just wanted food or mattresses.”
With Santa’s helpers knowing what they were looking for, when a special request came through that they thought might work, they would send it off to Nachman who would peruse and consider. Sometimes there were a few, sometimes 20, sometimes 50. To protect the privacy of the families, the postal service had to act as liaison at first. If Nachman liked a letter, the USPS would send an express mail letter to the parents essentially saying if you’re interested in participating in this movie, here’s the filmmaker’s email and phone number.
Then, the waiting game began.
“We just waited by the phone,” Nachman said. “It was very stressful. Time was ticking.”
They also needed the permission of the adopter to make a perfect match. But calls started coming in and eventually they wound up with more than they could use.
“We wanted to make sure that the film tonally was a shot of poignancy that drives people to act and give and help the world, but also have it be entertaining and fun,” Nachman said.
She hopes the film will both help spread the word about the program and inspire people to adopt a letter.
“Once you read them, you won’t be able to not do it,” she said.
Operation Santa is forging ahead this year even with the pandemic and for the first time it’s national and online. Letters will be available online at USPSOperationSanta.com for browsing and adopting starting Dec. 4. Due to COVID-19, the USPS said there will be no in-person adoption.
Those writing letters to Santa, located at 123 Elf Road, North Pole, 88888, should get started too: They need to be postmarked by Dec. 14, but the sooner the better. And don’t forget a return address and a stamp.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr