- The Washington Times - Friday, December 11, 2009

SCRANTON, Pa.

A microscope. A new puppy. A mother. And absolutely, positively, no clothes. From the humorous to the heart-wrenching, children’s wish lists to Santa reveal that children aren’t as toy-centric as parents think - and that they’re not as polite as perhaps they should be.

Carole Slotterback, a psychology professor at the University of Scranton, analyzed nearly 1,200 letters sent between 1998 and 2003 to the central post office in Scranton, a struggling former coal city in northeastern Pennsylvania.

The missives were scrawled or painstakingly handwritten on every type of paper and in every shade of ink. Many were decorated with drawings, stickers or glitter; some children gave Santa their addresses, their phone numbers, their parents’ cell phone numbers and their school pictures, just to make sure the Big Guy knew how to find them on Christmas.

Miss Slotterback, who describes her findings in the book “The Psychology of Santa,” said the letters “touched me in so many different ways.”

“Some are just absolutely a stitch, and others are some of the saddest things I’ve ever read,” she said.

One child asked to be an elf. Another made a list that included Pokemon cards, a camera and a microscope. But about every third item, the child wrote: “No clothes.”

Then there was the one written in careful cursive on bright pink paper, in which Santa was asked for perhaps the greatest gift of all: a mom.

“Not just for me but my daddy, brother and granny. … My daddy works so hard and then he comes home to cook and clean and it should be easier,” the letter read.

The child drew a 5-cent “stamp” on the envelope before dropping it into the mailbox.

The U.S. Postal Service receives hundreds of thousands of letters to Santa each year, with increases during tough economic times, said spokeswoman Sue Brennan.

None of them makes it to the North Pole, but some do get responses through Operation Santa Claus. About 500,000 letters in New York City alone were answered last year by individuals, companies and postal employees, Miss Brennan said.

Some are funny - one asked Santa to check the appropriate box: Real or not real? - but many more are not, she said.

“I’ve never gone 5 or 10 minutes without getting teary,” said Miss Brennan. “It’s very emotional.”

Children who sent letters instead of lists were generally more polite and chatty, for instance asking about Mrs. Claus, she said.

Except for the death threat. One child wrote: “Dear Santa, I am going to kill you and steal the toys from your workshop.” Miss Slotterback reported it to the postmaster, who agreed to contact people at the return address, which she suspected was a juvenile facility.

The letters also show that children are sensitive to current events. In 2001, just months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, children’s letters were patriotic, Miss Slotterback said. Children drew pictures of Santa’s sleigh with American flags hanging off the back, and of St. Nick putting flags into stockings. They also asked for fewer toys that year, she found.

The children gave no indication that they feared the terrorists would get Santa, she said.

“Terrorists can do all kinds of things to our world, and they can hurt us in many ways, but one thing they can’t do is touch Santa,” said Miss Slotterback. “And that was nice to see.”

Overall, between 3 percent and 6 percent of letters had what Miss Slotterback called “family requests,” such as for a sick grandmother to get better or for Mom and Dad to stop fighting.

She suggested that parents ask to see the wish list, because they might be surprised at what is - and what’s not - on it. Requests are often “simpler kinds of things than you might think,” Miss Slotterback said.

But she noted a surprising lack of social niceties in the correspondence, unless the child was asking for a pet. A boy who asked for a golden retriever used “please” 16 times, she said. The next-highest use came from a girl who wanted a horse.

Miss Slotterback cited other research that found that people who expect their requests to be fulfilled - like a boss asking an employee to do something - are less likely to say please. Perhaps likewise, she said, children expect Santa to come through.

Still, she said, “you’d think if you were asking for a lot of presents, you would throw in a ‘please’ or a ‘thank you.’ ”

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