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What a Jewish editor can learn answering letters to Santa

Here’s what they don’t tell you about being Santa Claus: it can be heart-wrenching.

Every year, the Boston Globe receives as many as 17,000-plus letters addressed to Santa Claus. This year, the paper put me, a Jewish journalist who was a reporter and editor there for 36 years, in charge of writing about them.

“How are you Santa?” one mother began her letter, cheerily, before outlining her woes. “Things have been a bit difficult here.”

Her husband died two years ago. Her 14-year-old son has autism and has been hospitalized for depression. His 10-year-old brother not only lost his father “but has to deal with his older brother on a daily basis. Now he’s being treated for obsessive-compulsive disorder as a result of all his stress.”

The mother, like other writers, will receive toys and gifts for her children from the Boston Globe Foundation this season. My job is to let readers know why they need them.

Globe Santa is the paper’s venerable 66-year-old charity, a signature program of the Boston Globe Foundation that raises money to buy toys and books for children whose parents or guardians can’t afford to give them much, if anything, at holiday time. Seven days a week between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Globe Santa uses the paper to tell their stories, from heartbreak to homelessness.

Globe Santa

A child’s illustrated letter to Globe Santa. By Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Last summer I got an email from the paper asking if I’d be interested in being the editor in charge of the program, working with a Globe Santa team who read the letters that start arriving in September by snail mail, asking for gift assistance.

It’s a bit like the Forward’s A Bintel Brief column, except Globe Santa doesn’t give advice. Or understand Yiddish. A big part of the job is looking for themes in some of these letters and shaping them into compelling stories.

“I’m proud to be the first Jewish Globe Santa editor!” I wrote Bill Connolly, the program’s longtime executive director. Connolly was an Irish boy from Boston’s insular Dorchester neighborhood, and says that until he went to work for the Globe several decades ago, he thought everyone was Catholic.

“Mazel tov!” he shot back.

I know there are many in the American Jewish community who consider Santa Claus an affront to racial and/ or cultural diversity. But I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the tubby red-suited old guy. My father, a life insurance salesman, had many beloved clients in the Chinese community in Winnipeg, Canada where I grew up, and they recruited him to be Santa Claus for their annual Christmas party. This may have been because he was, as they say, a heavyset fellow. Or because he was jolly. But I used to watch him in action – ho, ho, ho and all – with the children, and could see everyone was having a blast, especially him.

The Globe, of course, is not the only major newspaper with charitable giving initiatives at holiday time. The New York Time has its Neediest Cases Fund. The Washington Post has the Helping Hand initiative. The Toronto Star operates the Santa Claus Fund.

But unlike, say, the Post that facilitates donations through what it calls “high-impact, in-depth narratives about those in need” — words that just sing with Christmas spirit — there’s a kind of homespun folksiness to Globe Santa, who is unapologetically retro. That’s another thing I’ve always loved about him, along with the fact that he brings toys instead of conventional necessities. Globe Santa really seems to get kids.

“Sometimes people ask why we give toys when there are so many other basic needs that aren’t being met,” Bill Connolly told me. “The answer is that it’s an opportunity for kids to think: ‘Somebody thought about me.’ When other kids ask them what they got for the holidays, they know they’re no different than anyone else.”

globe santa

Packing toys at Globe Santa’s fulfillment center By Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

As editor, I wrote an initial column in the Globe explaining the program.

“Globe Santa is a Greater Boston institution with a simple slogan: ‘Deliver Joy.’ It’s not a flashy charity or social media operation,” I wrote. “Globe Santa doesn’t blog or snap selfies or cavort with celebrities. It represents charity in the most real and humble sense, raising money through modest donations, distributing toys, books and games, then quietly disappearing until next Christmas season.”

In the pre-COVID days when the Globe Santa campaign ventured out in public for fund-raising purposes, Santa’s “sleigh” was a decorated, retrofitted Globe delivery truck. Mostly, Globe Santa is a logo, mailing address, and phone number, with a massive infrastructure that supports the operation.

The letters that arrive are written by hand on a single lined page provided by the State’s Department of Transitional Assistance or another approved agency that vets them, including Jewish Family & Children’s Service.

“Tell us your story,” the form reads.

The stories are first-person, urgent micro-histories which over the years have charted the social history of Boston. They tell tales of immigration, injury, illness, court orders, bankruptcy, house fires, orphaned children, drug addiction, lost homes, lost dignity.

These days, many are related to COVID-19 which has sickened children, killed parents, and taken away jobs and income streams. Globe Santa has taught me that countless people – of all income levels – are only one diagnosis away from financial ruin.

Globe Santa has shown me how global tensions — ethnic conflicts, human rights violations, act of terrorism – are reverberating in Boston. A mother of two wrote that she was forced to leave her husband when she fled to America a year ago and is now a lonely and heartsick refugee. He was a professor at a Turkish university but the Erdogan government “did him an injustice,” she said, firing him and confiscating all their property.

Another mother wrote her two girls suffer from the chaos of their earlier lives in Syria, a consequence of attacks by the Islamic State. “My daughter is still terrified by any noise due to the attack and is being treated for a war traumatic disorder.”

I’ve learned that many down-and-out people are unimaginably courageous and optimistic; and that grown-ups who were Globe Santa recipients long ago are still grateful decades later, saying that the experience has taught them to be generous to others.

I’ve seen that sometimes life is unspeakably unkind. Is there a reason why, amidst all this affluence, a mother of 21-month-old twin girls should write in Spanish to ask for help because she can only afford a single car seat for her babies?

And I’ve learned that Santa may be of Christian origin but this matters not to Jewish donors.

Recently an $18 contribution came in from a man named Phil Heyman in Pennsylvania who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1960. He made the donation in honor of Leonard Nimoy, because he loves “Star Trek” and Nimoy was Jewish and lived in Boston. (Also, he said, because Nimoy based his Vulcan salute on the priestly blessing given by the ancient Jewish priests.)

“In Judaism, charity is a big deal,” Heyman told me when I called to ask him why he donated to Globe Santa.

“There are two key phrases the rabbis emphasize. Gemilut chasidim – deeds of righteousness – and tikkun olam, or restoring the world,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s what Globe Santa is about.”

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