‘From the Palace of St. Nicholas’: Santa’s correspondence at the Beinecke Library

Children nationwide in recent weeks have written or dictated letters to Santa Claus helpfully offering him a sense of the loot they hope to see under the tree on Christmas morning.

Children nationwide in recent weeks have written or dictated letters to Santa Claus helpfully offering him a sense of the loot they hope to see under the tree on Christmas morning.

Undoubtedly some of those children have received replies from the Jolly Old Elf, quite possibly in handwriting strikingly similar to one of their parents’.

Many of these yuletide missives are destined for the recycling bin or lost forever in a forgotten box of mementos in the attic, but a few may survive to become charming artifacts of Christmas past.

The Betsy Beinecke Shirley Collection of Children’s Literature at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library features a handful of remarkable examples of letters to and from Santa.

A letter Mark Twain wrote to his young daughter Susie Clemens under the penname “Santa Claus” stands out.

The undated, nine-page, letter is addressed from the “Palace of St. Nicholas,” which Twain located “in the moon,” depriving the North Pole of its most celebrated resident. It begins:

“I have received and read all the letters which you and your little sister have written me by the hand of your mother and your nurses; I have also read those which you little people have written me with your own hands — for although you did not use any characters that are in grown people’s alphabets, you used the characters that all children in all lands on earth and in the twinkling stars use …”

Twain’s Santa explains to Susie that he could not read her mother’s handwriting, “for I am a foreigner and cannot read English writing well.” Santa informs her that he will “call at your kitchen door” in order to clear up the confusion and bring her the presents she requested. He provides her elaborate instructions meant to keep his visit a secret, but he cautions her not to clean up any boot prints he leaves behind.

“Leave it there always in memory of my visit; and whenever you look at it or show it to anybody you must let it remind you to be a good little girl,” he wrote.

A full transcription of the letter is available online.

The collection also contains four “Dear Santa” letters to Clement Clarke Moore, author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas (’Twas the Night Before Christmas),” from Joseph and Thomas Chapman, who were the young son’s of the Rev. James Chapman, the rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and Moore’s friend.

The boys’ first letters, dated Christmas 1837, are neatly written, likely by one of their parents, but signed in a child’s sloppy hand. They are addressed “Santa Claus, Up the Chimney.”  

Joseph’s letter begins: “Permit a little boy to address a few lines to you asking as a great favor that you will give him Parleys Almanac for 1838 it (sic) is a great favorite with us, as he forewarns us of foul weather and gives hopes of fair … he gives a great deal of good advice to little boys which I hope to profit by.”

Thomas does not request a specific gift in his letter, but he does appear concerned that Santa will be unable to read his unsteady signature: “I have sined (sic) my name which I hope you can make out — I hope next year to be able to write it better.”

It seems Thomas’s concerns were justified. Santa Claus (Moore) replied on Dec. 31 and his letter focuses heavily on the boys’ messy signatures.

“I received letters from two little boys, the letters do very well but as for the names did anyone ever see such writing,” he writes. “I spent a long time trying to make them out. I thought at one time of calling in all the neighbors and desiring them to bring there (sic) specticles (sic) with them in the midst of my quandary.”

Santa issues the boys a dire warning.  

“(I]f they do not write better next year they had better hang there (sic) stocking up by the toe for I am surtain (sic) I shall have nothing to put in at the top,” he wrote.

All was not lost for the Chapman brothers as Santa goes on to explain that he was waiting to receive Parleys Almanac from Boston and that once it arrived “the little boys will not be forgotten.”

The Chapman brothers wrote another round of Santa letters to Moore in 1840. Both were written in verse. (Their signatures showed substantial improvement.)

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Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548