The first letter to Santa Claus ever published in a Tampa Bay newspaper was straightforward enough.
“Dear Santa," wrote an unnamed girl from Tampa Heights in a letter reprinted in the Dec. 16, 1899 edition of the Tampa Tribune. "If you haven’t time to pick out things for me, just leave everything you’ve got.”
That lone letter published in 1899 must have gone over well, because in 1900 the Tribune dedicated full pages on back-to-back Sundays to children’s letters to Santa, starting with one from a boy named Harry Peeple’s Jr. who asked St. Nick to leave all the firecrackers “you can spare.”
Fireworks were apparently a popular way to celebrate Christmas in Tampa at the turn of the century, and the Tribune from Dec. 26, 1900 suggests more than a few good boys and girls received them. The paper described the explosions after midnight Christmas Eve as “pandemonium” at nearly every residence, and told the story of “a Cuban youth on upper Franklin Street," who “held his right foot firmly down on a giant fire cracker to ‘make it go louder’," saying, "He will not walk for a week.”
Historians believe the American tradition of children mailing letters to Santa Claus via the post office may have been spurred by two factors in the late 19th century. According to Smithsonian, postal workers started hand delivering and collecting mail at homes in the 1860s, meaning people didn’t have to trudge to the post office anymore, and in the 1870s, Thomas Nast published illustrations in the widely-read Harper’s Weekly showing Santa sorting through letters at home, and of a young boy dropping a letter to Santa at the North Pole into a mailbox.
At first the letters went straight to the Dead Letter Office in Washington, D.C., but by 1911 federal policy was changed to allow post offices to read the letters and pass them on to charitable organizations. Years before that, newspapers realized the letters made for an amusing peek inside kids’ minds. They asked readers to send them in, with promises to forward them on to Santa.
Children had a simpler idea of sweet treats in first decade of the 20th century. The first letter to Santa published by this newspaper, then named the St. Petersburg Times, was in 1905, when Alta Vere Booth, 7, asked for “nuts and raisins, apples and bananas too" in addition to a doll and a tea set. “Nuts” were the most requested gift in the letters of the time.
The letters often reflect the technology and culture of the time. Many around the turn of the century asked for a “velocipede,” a name for a pedal-powered vehicle with any number of wheels — a bicycle when that number is two. The first local request for a toy automobile comes in 1908, the year Ford introduced the groundbreaking Model-T, making cars affordable and accessible to the masses for the first time and rapidly changing the world.
At some point, newspapers seemed to decide that printing the saddest of the “Dear Santa” letters was the way to go. The Tampa Tribune’s collection from 1914 was headlined “Pathetic Appeals of Small Folk for Christmas Cheer." One girl wrote “I have saw Papa twice since I can remember." A boy whose family was “homesteading” wrote that they were “mighty poor, so please come by here to see us and leave anything you please.”
Many historians date the start of the modern era of football to 1932, which happens to be the first year when multiple children asked for a “foot ball" in the pages of the St. Petersburg Times.
World War II is reflected in a letter from 1942, when a child asks for “defense stamps,” which were issued in denominations from five cents to $5 dollars to raise money for the military, in addition to a doll buggy.
In a letter from 1950, the start of the Korean War, a young girl asks that instead of gifts, some clothes and toys be sent to Korea where she heard on the radio the soldiers are fighting. Another kid that year wanted a monkey.
In 1952, a Tampa boy asked for 20 “Bee-Bee” guns to “start a revolution.” Perhaps he’d read about the coup in Argentina that September that overthrew Juan Perón, husband of Eva Perón, also known as Evita.
Starting in the 1950s and running throughout the 1960s, the St. Petersburg Times published Christmastime columns under the byline “Peter K. Pinellas, Times Yule Correspondent." Peter would send dispatches from afar while traveling with Santa from the North Pole to the St. Petersburg Christmas parade, as well as summarize real letters children sent the Times. Peter would also report on Santa’s reactions to them.
In 1965, the Tribune published children’s Santa letters from a “juvenile home." One girl wrote “I know I must be a bad girl, or I wouldn’t be here,” but begged Santa to let her tell her side of the story. Another girl confessed to lying about her stepfather to a judge, “because other children had told her the lies would get her in the juvenile home ‘where it’s lots of fun’.” She regretted the deception.
In the 1970s, two of the most popular requests were for records (one little girl in 1975 requested the David Geddes single Run Joey Run, in which Joey’s girlfriend is mistakenly shot by her dad, who’s actually trying to shoot Joey) and "Evel Knievel sets.” The lists of requests seemed to start getting longer also.
Others were pretty honest about how good they’d been, such as one pragmatic, unnamed kid in 1975 who wrote, “I have been more good than bad.”
Many children over the years inquired about Santa’s health, concerned that he had to do so much traveling in the winter and sending him words of encouragement, such as Shantell in 1979, who said Santa is nice and “I like that.”
In 1981, when Jordache jeans appeared on many lists, one girl warned Santa “my taste is getting classier each year." Video games make their first appearance in 1982, with references to Pac-Man and Atari. And Apple computers show up on many lists around 1986.
In 1988, the year that the Florida Lottery was introduced, several kids asked Santa for the winning numbers, and in a year when Saturday morning cartoons were flooded with anti-drug PSAs, several others asked that Santa somehow make illegal drugs go away.
At least one kid definitely got his wish. Kevin Gibbard, in addition to a Game Boy, in 1989 asked that the Berlin Wall would “be sucked up.” The wall came down that fall. Christie Mickiewicz asked Santa, “Please don’t forget my Ford Escort.”
Not everyone was thrilled about having to write to Santa. Some teachers apparently made it a class assignment.
Jorge Larzabal had a unique request in 1991, the year that the University of Miami went 12-0 and beat Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to split the national championship with the Washington Huskies.
Some of the letters contain examples some of the best slang of the time. Jeremy Ealy sounds like he was a good boy ... not.
For several years in the early 1990s, the Times ran an entire special section around the holidays with dozens of letters to Santa, but after those special sections ended, Dear Santa letters were only published sporadically, and have not appeared at all in the past decade.
Some of the most emotional letters were published around the turn of the millennium. In 2000, Theresa Pennington wrote that “I want nothing,” except for someone to pamper her mom for a day. “She sweeps the rug with a broom. We don’t even have a vacuum but she doesn’t complain but I know she herts.”
Later came letters that referenced the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, which captured the fear and uncertainty of the time. One girl wrote that year “I’m not sure if we will ever have another Christmas,” but that she’d like to visit Santa’s home at the North Pole, “because I feel it would be safe there.”
The last full letter to Santa Claus published in a local newspaper was in 2006. The kid wanted an American Girl doll and about a dozen accessories to go with it, including flip-flops and a motorcycle.
The best place to view modern letters to Santa might be on the United States Post Office’s Operation Santa website. Starting this year, the post office will be posting letters to Santa mailed from 15 U.S. cities online, including letters sent from Tampa and St. Petersburg. Visitors can browse this year’s letters and, after registering, “adopt” a letter to fulfill a child or family’s Christmas wish.
Children can also submit a letter to Santa Claus via the form below, and the Tampa Bay Times will forward it along to Santa before Christmas.