Dear Santa


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Dear Santa
"Somehow managing to tell its whole story in a way that families can watch together without anyone becoming disillusioned, Dear Santa is skilfully constructed, pacy and entertaining throughout." | Photo: IFC Films

Attacks on materialism at Christmas often seem very one sided.There's a focus on criticising people for wanting gifts. What's overlooked is the joy of giving.

Every year, millions of children around the world write letters to Santa. That's a lot for one man to deal with, supernatural powers notwithstanding, so in the US, a dedicated team of volunteers steps in to help. Dana Nachman's documentary introduces us to Chicago's Head Elf and her team of volunteers who open letters, identify achievable requests and set out to make wishes come true.

There are a lot of wishes out there. Many children ask for animals, dogs being the most popular. One asks for a brother and notes that their mother doesn't want this but their dad does. All sorts of different toys are requested. Others ask for key items of furniture that the families have been struggling to manage without. One asks simply for food, whilst another wants reassurance that God loves him.

The impact of poverty, deprivation and prejudice on children's lives is glaring here, but this isn't just another film about helping those conventionally classed as needy - it's about recognising the need that all children have to believe that life can turn out well and to feel that they are valued. Responding to that need requires some inventive solutions, which is part of what the volunteers find exciting. It also provides opportunities to do good in additional ways, such as by finding new homes for rescue animals - after negotiating carefully with parents, of course.

Some of the volunteers are very young. In one scene, a class of children discuss how they might help other children, and which ones they think are particularly deserving. Viewers elsewhere in the world might be surprised by how old some of the children writing to Santa are - there's that peculiar US custom of sheltering or infantalising kids for much longer than is normal in most places. But there's something else going on here. If we lose our belief in Santa, do we need to invent him? There's a sense that the reality of Santa isn't all that important - it's the idea that matters. Sometimes adults write letters too, asking Santa for help because they don't know where else to turn.

Not all of the children are as naive as you might think. Most of them recognise that the Santas they meet in stores are not the real thing, but seem to accept them as helpers. One girl likes the fact that they have different skin colours. A boy explains that you can always spot a fake Santa because he won't be wearing the right shoes. Reflecting on the importance of achieving eligibility for gifts by being good, a kid who dreams of seeing Santa at work notes the importance of not getting caught.

Somehow managing to tell its whole story in a way that families can watch together without anyone becoming disillusioned, Dear Santa is skilfully constructed, pacy and entertaining throughout. It will restore your faith in human nature and it's one of the best documentaries of the year.

Reviewed on: 04 Dec 2020
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The story of the United States Postal Service Operation Santa programme that aims to make children's wishes come true.
Amazon link

Director: Dana Nachman

Writer: Dana Nachman

Year: 2020

Runtime: 84 minutes

Country: US


DOC NYC 2020

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