You probably won’t cry through ALL of Dear Santa, but expect your eyes to be a little leaky through most of it.
Dear Santa follows the stories of the 2019 version of Operation Santa, a charity begun in 1912 that matches children (and some adults) who have written letters to Santa with donors. Writer and director Dana Nachman follows a few of Santa’s “elves,” which include an elementary school’s student government, a postmaster in a small town in Arizona, and a former Operation Santa recipient. The letters we see have the same range: One child asks for a “rainbow dragon who is a girl warrior,” a lot of them ask for puppies, and one writer asks if God and Santa love him even though he’s gay.
The logistics of Operation Santa are staggering, and Nachman touches on that as she takes us into warehouses with hundreds of elves busily wrapping. Her best choice and deftest touch, though, is that she chooses to concentrate on a few letter writers and the elves who have “adopted” them. Watching a group of tweens shop their way through Target to make sure someone they’ve never met — and probably never will — gets a present is much more meaningful because the audience knows who will be unwrapping that gift on Christmas morning. While some questions are left unanswered (one assumes, for example, that Santa somehow clears it with the parents before dropping off a much-desired bunny), that can be forgiven when you see just how much that bunny means.
While Nachman makes sure we can see the recipients happily tearing off wrapping paper, she makes the wise and moving choice to emphasize the givers. She doesn’t turn them into saints, but it’s clear that Operation Santa means just as much to those who answer the letters as it does to those who’ve written them, if not more. Seeing them go through the entire process from choosing a letter from a pile to sending the gift on its way shows just how deeply the volunteers believe in what they’re doing and that they get as much as they give.
Shot in 2019, the film is especially poignant as we approach a Christmas that will be much different than last year’s. Looking at crowded skating rinks and community Christmas parties, it’s understandable that the audience will feel a little pang about what will be missing this year. Still, Dear Santa reminds us that there are some constants: People are at their best when caring for one another, there’s nothing better than a kid’s face right before they start tearing wrapping paper off of a box, and Santa always comes to good little boys and girls.
By the way, you can sign up to read letters and adopt a child at the Operation Santa website beginning December 4.