Review: ‘Dear Santa’ (2020) starring Robin Gellman, Damion DiGrazia, Gail Branham, Ashley Jones, Jennifer Jones and Matt Beresh

December 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Dear Santa” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Dear Santa” (2020)

Directed by Dana Nachman 

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the United States, the family-friendly documentary “Dear Santa” features a racially diverse (white, African American, Asian and Hispanic) group of working-class and middle-class people discussing the U.S. Postal Service’s Operation Santa program that handles letters to Santa Claus.

Culture Clash: Letters to Santa Claus get written, but not all gift wishes can be granted.

Culture Audience: “Dear Santa” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a feel-good documentary about generosity and the spirit of Christmas.

Robin Gellman (second from left) with students in “Dear Santa” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

What happens to letters in the U.S. that get sent to Santa Claus? The heartwarming and delightful documentary “Dear Santa” gives an inside look at Operation Santa, the U.S. Postal Service program that takes care of these letters and often helps makes the wishes in these letters come true. It’s a movie that people of any generation can enjoy. And in keeping with the spirit of Christmas, there is no talk that will ruin anyone’s idea of Santa Claus, especially if anyone watching this movie believes that Santa Claus is real.

Directed by Dana Nachman, “Dear Santa” features a lot of adorable kids without being cloying. The children (who talk about Santa Claus and what they want for Christmas) are real, down-to-earth and relatable to a lot of families. These kids are obviously not “showbiz” types who see this movie as a stepping stone to a career in acting.

The adults in the documentary are either the children’s parents or they are involved in Operation Santa in some way. Many of the adults are volunteers or postal workers who call themselves “elves” in their mission to answer letters from children (especially underprivileged kids) and surprising them with gifts that were on their Christmas wish list. And the documentary shows some kids who are part of the Operation Santa program too.

According to the documentary, the U.S. Postal Service began receiving a great deal of letters to Santa Claus around the year 1907, although kids were no doubt writing to Santa for a long period of time before then. In 1912, the U.S. Postal Service officially authorized its workers and other people to begin answering the letters—and Operation Santa was born. Local post offices distribute the letters to several volunteer “elves,” many of whom work with or for non-profit charity organizations, churches and schools to coordinate giving gifts that are listed in the letters to Santa.

The way that “Dear Santa” is edited, the documentary jumps around and goes back and forth in different cities across the United States. They include New York City; Chicago; Detroit; Lansing, Michigan; Pearce, Arizona; and Chico, California. In each city, a select number of children’s letters are read on camera, and viewers get to see many of these children with their parents at home. Later in the movie, it’s shown whether or not these children get the items that they requested in their letters to Santa.

With few exceptions, everyone in the documentary is identified by their first names only. If someone’s last name is mentioned, it’s only because another person in the movie happened to verbally mention that person’s last name. The omission of last names is not just for privacy reasons, but it adds to the “mystique” when the “elf” adults talk about working with Santa.

A U.S. Postal Service worker named Greg, who’s identified in the movie as Operation Santa’s “lead elf,” talks about how different regions of the country can have different types of requests: “For instance, in New York, they’re much more into electronics than a lot of the country. You go to California—you guessed it—a lot more surfboards are being asked for. Most of the kids are just very, very polite when they ask Santa for their gifts.”

And what types of gifts are asked for in this documentary? In Lansing, a boy named Christopher is fascinated with dutch bunnies. In New York City, a 12-year-old boy named Bryan wishes he could take a limo ride around the city with his mother and other family members. In Chico, two girls (one named Victoria, the other named Lorelai) whose families lost their homes in the 2018 wildfire disaster in Paradise, California, ask for toys and household items that were lost in the fires.

Children aren’t the only ones who make gift requests to the Operation Santa program. The movie also shows adults making requests too, especially single mothers who are struggling financially. The requests are usually for children’s clothing and household items. For example, one mother asks for a new sofa. Another mother, who’s pregnant with her fifth child, asks for baby items. For many underprivileged people, food is often requested in letters to Santa.

The people who volunteer to personally handle the responsibility of giving the items requested in the letters have to go through a process of reading the letters they want to “adopt.” In 2017, Operation Rescue began digitizing the letters to make them easier to read and organize. A women named Janice, who is identified as Operation Santa’s “lead elf” in Chicago, has this to say about what people experience in the letter-reading “adoption” process: “Once they start reading, they can’t stop. We actually put tissues on the table because they cry.”

And there might be many tears shed while watching “Dear Santa,” not from sadness but from the poignant scenes of innocent children experiencing the joy of feeling wanted, loved and respected. The material gifts are just symbols of those feelings that they hope to get when they want Santa to answer their letters. And adults watching this documentary might feel nostalgic about what it was like to experience the Christmas holidays as children.

A woman named Jamie, who is identified as the lead elf in Chico, is one of the adults who unapologetically gets tearful when she does her Operation Santa work. Like many residents of Chico, she is a former resident of Paradise who lost her home in the fires. In the documentary, she says that she was making sure to be on a special lookout for Santa letters to help families who also lost their home.

The documentary shows the work of some groups that obtain, wrap and distribute the gifts for the Santa letters that they “adopt.” One of these groups is There Really Is a Santa Claus, a Chicago-based non-profit that was co-founded in 2006 by Ashley Jones, Jennifer Jones and Matt Beresh. Another non-profit is Santa’s Knights, based in New York City and founded in 2016 by Damion DiGrazia. And at P.S. 253 in New York City’s Brighton Beach district in Brooklyn, teacher Robin Gellman leads a group of students who are part of the school’s Pay It Forward program.

DiGrazia tells a poignant story about how the Operation Santa program had a profound impact on him as a child. When he was about 10 or 11 years old, his family was going through some personal hardships. His single mother was financially struggling to raise him and his two siblings.

He wrote a letter to Santa asking for an alarm clock and a radio. To his amazement and delight, he got an alarm clock radio. DiGrazia said he’ll never forget how he felt when he got that Christmas gift. And that’s the feeling he wants other kids to have when he does his work with Operation Santa, whose New York operations are headed by Gail Branham, another person who’s interviewed in the documentary.

“Dear Santa” has some scenes that look a bit contrived when DiGrazia scrambles to find enough donations so that he can fulfill the wishes of 25 letters that he “adopted.” He says he used up all his money and is “tapped out” from asking people in his network. He goes from retailer to retailer asking if they can donate items that are on the list, but he ends up empty-handed. And finally, with time running out, he has a fundraiser at a local bar. Did he get what he needed? Well, it wouldn’t be in the movie if he didn’t.

At P.S. 253 in Brooklyn, New York, the school’s Pay It Forward leader Gellman teaches kids how to evaluate requests based on what they have the budgets to buy. The students get to vote on which letters to “adopt.” And they are especially impressed with letters from kids who don’t ask for anything for themselves but for other people in their families.

Gellman comments on how Pay It Forward’s work with Operation Santa has an effect on the students who participate: “Most children don’t feel they have the power to make somebody’s dream come true like that … I think our students really develop some empathy, civic pride and an overall good feeling to be Santa and make somebody’s dreams come true.”

The documentary is inclusive of a diverse array of communities, including the LGBTQ community. In New York City, an openly gay man named Michael gets emotional when he talks about how he took a break from Operation Santa, but was motivated to start volunteering in the program again after he read a letter from a gay boy whose only wish was to get love and acceptance from Santa and God. A married lesbian couple in Detroit named Kelsey and Val, who are involved in animal rescues, are shown delivering a puppy to a family whose kids finally got their request for a dog after their mother refused for years to let them have a dog.

“Dear Santa” is not a religious movie, since the Operation Santa program is for everyone, regardless if people have a religion or not. One of the best things about the documentary is it shows how the joy of giving (without expecting anything in return) is contagious and that there’s nothing like seeing happy children. Only the most cold-hearted people won’t feel any emotions from watching “Dear Santa.” The movie will also make people think about how much they can give back to their communities—not just during the end-of-year holidays but throughout the entire year.

IFC Films released “Dear Santa” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on December 4, 2020.