Visit theallusionist.org/dear-santa to hear this episode and read more about it.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, deliver a present down language’s chimney - as if that’s not creepy.
Coming up in today’s show is a heartwarming festive story, but before that, I need to chat with you about money. Awkward! It’s Radiotopia’s annual fundraiser, during which you listeners can become supporters of this collective of podcasts and snag some exclusive gifts, from challenge coins and keyrings to life advice from The Memory Palace and audio production help from Criminal and Radio Diaries. Great gifts, but the greatest gift of all is the knowledge that thanks to you, all of our shows can keep afloat. None of us are operating with a huge budget: we’re all streamlined operations, the Allusionist is essentially a team of one. Your money goes straight to making more of the shows that you like. It’s not all about cash, though; another way to support the show is to recommend it to a friend. That too is enormously helpful. But if you can help to throw a bit of money at this show and the rest of the Radiotopia collective, go to radiotopia.fm.
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On with the show!
JIM GLAUB: To be honest, these letters have been coming in as long as I've lived in that Chelsea apartment. And even before that, the gentleman that lived before us had been getting the letters, only about four or five a year. And then they had told me that the guys before them had been getting the letters.
HZ: This is Jim Glaub. He and his husband Dylan Parker were living in an apartment on West 22nd St in Manhattan. And every year, these letters would arrive there, addressed... to Santa. And not by accident. The letters were clearly intended to be delivered to their apartment.
JIM GLAUB: It's this particular address, even the apartment number, apartment number seven. So it's very very specific, which is strange.
HZ: But it didn’t register as strange for the first few years.
JIM GLAUB: if you were only getting four or five letters to Santa, you'd be like, "I'm not thinking about this either.
HZ: But then, in 2010:
JIM GLAUB: The letters had come in one by one at the beginning, as they normally do.
HZ: But then more. And more.
JIM GLAUB: 20 were coming a week, 30, 40, 50...
HZ: In the weeks leading up to Christmas 2010, Jim and Dylan received almost 400 letters for Santa.
JIM GLAUB: Attention must be paid. You were getting so many letters that you actually can't ignore it. And it had started to weigh on us what to do with this.
HZ:The letter-writers weren’t asking for new iPhones, or a racehorse, or a spare car made of diamonds.
JIM GLAUB: Most of it is basic stuff, like people who just need a coat or socks or basic things like shirts and sweatpants and pajamas. It seems like there are a lot of moms who write in for their kids, obviously; but a lot of them are just trying to make ends meet, and with a little help from someone else they could provide basic needs. That's probably the biggest theme I've seen across the board. And so then, at that point, I was on a mission: I was absolutely committed, dedicated one hundred percent obligated to get these letters fulfilled.
HZ: Why do you think you felt such an obligation to respond to the letters?
JIM GLAUB: Well it took it may have taken some therapy to get through that answer. I grew up really poor and I'm in the fortunate position where I'm not anymore. And I read these letters and I saw a lot of myself as a kid, and I felt I had an obligation to them because of that, and maybe because of my circumstances that I saw a lot of myself in them. And so if there was anything I could do to give back, then it was to try to get those letters fulfilled, perhaps. To be honest, at the time though, Helen, it was like I was a robot. I was just like "Get! Them! Fulfilled!"
HZ: So Jim and Dylan set about trying to respond to all the requests in the letters. But they couldn’t do it all by themselves.
JIM GLAUB: Dylan and I had thrown a Christmas party. It was like a holiday party a bunch of our friends came. Of course, it was the height of Mad Men, so it was a 1960s party, specifically the year 1962. So it was so classic, because it truly was right out of a movie: everybody is dressed up like the 60s, playing classic Christmas music, the whole apartment's done up in the 60s; it's Christmas, it's really fun, everyone's having a blast. And in that party I'm running around passing out the letters, and everybody's like, what is this? What's going on? And I remember reading them with everybody. And people were passing theirs around and sort of like, what is going on here? Everybody was so overwhelmed by it, they were so overwhelmed by this story, they were overwhelmed by the actual letters; and everybody did agree to take a letter and they would fulfill it.
HZ: But the party guests couldn’t handle all the letters, so Jim sought out more helpers.
JIM GLAUB: I was going into buildings and friends' buildings and friends' companies and I was bringing the stack of letters and I remember going to all of the Broadway offices, the advertising agencies and all like marketing companies and all the ticketing companies and going door to door because they were friends and I was like, “Please take a letter, take a letter!” And there was even a point where, I think it was a week before Christmas, I started to get really panicky because I still had so many letters left that I was on the street and I was asking strangers on the street to take letters. And that's when Dylan was like, "OK, this has gone too far." But I just felt this obligation. We both did. We felt like we had to do something about it.
HZ: Sounds like it was quite stressful.
JIM GLAUB: Oh gosh, it was so stressful. Because also other life was happening, so much of just your regular life and that sort of being daunted with a stack of, not just a stack, a desk filled - is that a set of measurements we can use? I don't even know - literally bags of letters. It weighed a lot. I remember not sleeping very well. It was really hard. It took so long just to even explain the story so that someone could even take a letter. They were like, "Where did this come from?" And I was like, "I don't know, but you've got to do it," and they're like, "But you need to explain more to me what's going on." “But I don't have time! I have 400 letters I've got to get rid of! Can you just take it!"
HZ: So in my mind's eye, this scenario where you were running around going "Take a letter! Please! Take a letter!" - you're played by Jimmy Stewart, and it's very much got that mid-20th century festive film ambience to it.
JIM GLAUB: I have to say, Helen, it really did feel like that. Every day during this whole thing, I was like, "Oh my God, this is right out of a movie." Which is funny, because it is going to be a movie.
HZ: It is indeed going to be a movie. Tina Fey is writing it.
JIM GLAUB: I don't know. Maybe it is these sort of heightened circumstances of make it feel like you have to jump and make a snap judgment and do whatever it takes to get the job done.
HZ: Were you and Dylan always in agreement about how to respond?
JIM GLAUB: No, we were not! Dylan was really concerned. He's more pragmatic. He's very practical. He was nervous about safety. He was nervous about giving people's addresses out to random strangers. He was nervous about where this came from. We have charities and places that we donate to. We have lives. We have families. We have other things to do. This was taking up a lot of time and a lot of energy and a lot of emotions. So he was very real in this whole thing; he was just coming at it from a very real and practical place and he saw that I was fraught. I mean, it was really upsetting for me. I couldn't sleep. I was really worried about it. I was worried about these families. I was worried about their well-being. And he saw that that took a lot of toll. And so I think he probably handled it like most people would, which is like "let's take a realistic approach to this." He was the one who would try to find out where it was coming from. He was researching it. But yeah, we handled it very differently.
HZ: Nonetheless, the upshot was, Jim and Dylan and their friends and acquaintances and strangers who’d been accosted by Jim - this cohort of elves worked on answering all the letters, obtaining the requested gifts, delivering the items themselves or via mail order, whether anonymously or with their contact details or marked from Santa.
JIM GLAUB: One letter that I had actually affected me the most was, a colleague had picked out a letter and she read the letter aloud and it was from from a little boy who was like 9 or 10, and he had just said that his back was hurting him because he didn't have a bed to sleep in because he's constantly sleeping on the couch or on the floor. So he asked for a single bed. It's just like one of those things you're just like, oh my god, we take these things for granted, these basic needs of their kids who just don't even have simple things like a bed. So he did get one. She was like hysterical. And she got a couple of her friends together, I think her roommates, and they essentially bought this little kid a bed, which is really sweet and really heartwarming.
HZ: By Christmas, they had managed to respond to most of the letter-writers’ Christmas wishes.
JIM GLAUB: That year we had to deliver about 50, 60 letters back to the post office, because we couldn't get them fulfilled. But the good news is that since that year we've had every letter fulfilled that has come through to us, which is extraordinary.
HZ: Yes: Jim and Dylan didn’t stop after that year. Although the letters kinda did.
JIM GLAUB: The next year was strange, because we only got about 30 letters at the Chelsea apartment.
HZ: Even though, the previous year, Jim and Dylan’s festive efforts had garnered a lot of press attention: their friend Sarah, a documentarian, had made a short film about them which was featured in the New York Times; and lots of people had come forward wanting to help respond to the letters.
JIM GLAUB: So I was very disappointed in the fact that we actually didn't have a lot of letters to give out. So we're like OK, well, we got those fulfilled. And that was about 30 families - which is still amazing. But then the next year came around, and then it was only like eight.
HZ: But by then, it was no longer just about the letters anyway.
JIM GLAUB: We had started a Facebook group, and it had sort of taken on a life of its own where people were using the Facebook group as a way to connect with other families. So that sort of had grown meanwhile, while the letters were going down. But then the next year another 300 letters came in! And we weren't even living there! It was this poor gentleman, who was like, “I don't know what's going on here!” So we've now kept a relationship with everybody who lives in that apartment. And it's not always easy. I have to write them a letter and I have to knock on their door or get a friend to knock on the door and try to catch them at their home to say, "Oh, by the way, you're a part of this revolution."
HZ: “Your apartment comes with a certain obligation. Hear me out.”
JIM GLAUB: Yes! But everyone has been absolutely lovely who's lived there and they end up becoming an elf themselves and they help distribute, so it feels like a bit of a legacy thing.
HZ: As it does for other people who’ve been involved over the years.
JIM GLAUB: This young woman said, “I'm just so so thankful: I am now an elf. I am sponsoring a family this year. But six years ago I was the 15-year-old girl who didn't have a Christmas. And thanks to this group of people, I did.” So it's amazing - now we've been doing it for so long that we actually have people growing up to give back.
HZ: Now, Jim and Dylan run a non-profit, called Miracle on 22nd St, to fulfil requests from families in need. On their website, miracleon22ndstreet.com, you can volunteer to respond to a letter, to help out a family, you can donate, and if you need help for your family, you can send your request. And Jim and Dylan and their team of elves will do their best to fulfil the requests in people’s letters to Santa. But one big question remains.
JIM GLAUB: So where did the letters come from? To be honest, we really don’t know. There’s theories. Do you want the practical answer or do you want the magical answer?
The practical one is that perhaps someone had lived in the apartment, at least we know going back more than a decade before us, had perhaps been a part of this sort of giving back Santa organization; that our address was potentially in a newsletter that goes out to the school districts and teachers potentially gave them out to the parents to write in - because a lot of the letters that came in were in Spanish. So we think that some of them might have been from a specific ESL class. However, it was confirmed that when we would ask the people where they had got it from, some of them had said a newsletter, some of them had said they got it from a friend; some of them didn't know, they just had it. So that’s the practical answer.
The magical answer - which I think is really fascinating - is that the block 22nd St, on that essential street is the estate of Clement Clarke Moore.
HZ: Who is credited with writing the poem ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’.
JIM GLAUB: "Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house..." It's like a classic American poem. People read it over the fire on Christmas Eve.
HZ: Published in 1823, the poem was a huge hit, and is credited with inventing Santa’s eight reindeer and their names, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem. These last two were tweaked to Donner and Blitzen in later printings. Though there’s some debate over whether Clement Clarke Moore is the true author of the poem, he still gets a festive reputation - and he had inherited an estate which spanned several blocks of Chelsea.
JIM GLAUB: So he lived on that street, I think like two doors down, and it was back in the 1800s when all of those houses were essentially one. So there was thought that when he lived there, and he wrote that poem, that people thought that that's actually where Santa Claus lived, and had sent letters to that address thinking that that's where Santa lived. And so had this been going on since the 1800s? Who knows?
HZ: Alternate explanation: Santa himself was a previous tenant at that address, before he moved to the North Pole when rent hikes priced him out of New York. I mean, you try finding a parking spot in Manhattan for a sleigh.
HZ: Why do you think people want to answer the letters and people want to get involved?
JIM GLAUB: I feel like people love the magic behind this. There is definitely that level of like "what is this?", the mystery of it, which is still I wish there was a straight answer for. There just is not. But I also think we just all are striving - I think we are all craving a connection, and to be able to give back. And it feels like this around the height of Christmas and what Christmas means; it feels just like a perfect storm of how people can give back and feel something and feel connected with other people that are just like them. It feels like we're in a world of villains right now but that is absolutely not the case: there's so many heroes, people who care and they just want to give back and they want to feel that we're all in this together and that I think it's been that's been the best thing I've gotten out of this is that it's just there's so many good people out there and I am happy that all of this brought more people together.
Today’s episode is sponsored by Care/Of, a monthly subscription service that delivers personalised vitamin packs to your door. Here’s how it works: you fill in a quiz online, takes about five minutes, to tell Care/Of about your lifestyle and health needs, so they can select the vitamins and supplements you need. You can modify their selection, so if for instance you’ve already got a bucket of iron tablets at home, you can say you don’t want them to send iron. And then, each month, you get a box delivered to you that has a sachet for each day with your supplements in, and it’s personalised with your name and a fun fact on it! It’s like an advent calendar full of health supplements! I took Care/Of on the recent Allusionist tour - I was very concerned about my health, given that three months earlier I’d been more ill than ever before in my life, and the extra work and travel involved with the tour would usually make me ill anyway. And yes, there’s no scientific control experiment, but: I chucked my Care/Of sachets in my bag, took one every day and I felt very spry throughout the tour and I did NOT catch the gross cold that everyone else had at a conference I attended. In other good news, a portion of every sale goes toward the GOOD+ Foundation, which provides expectant mothers in need with valuable prenatal vitamins. For 25% off your first month of personalized Care/Of vitamins, visit TakeCareOf.com and enter the code ALLUSIONIST.
The Allusionist is part of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the best podcasts on the interwaves. And one cool thing we have is Radiotopia Showcase, a special channel that features original short series from excellent producers. The latest is by the brilliant women of The Stoop, a show that celebrates black joy. It’s a four-parter, and let me direct you Allusionites to the second episode, which is about the Gullah language and culture of South Carolina. Subscribe to Showcase in your usual podcast-listening place, and find it and all the other Radiotopians at radiotopia.fm/podcasts. And do support the collective with a donation at radiotopia.fm, because Radiotopia is only possible thanks to you listeners. Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
wayzgoose, noun: a printers’ annual dinner or picnic.
Try using it in an email today.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with a score by Martin Austwick. Jim Glaub is the chair of the nonprofit Miracle on 22nd St; find out more about their work to help families in need at miracleon22ndstreet.com, where you can also donate and get involved.
Find the Allusionist online: search for AllusionistShow on Facebook and Twitter. Over on the show’s website, you’ll find every episode, and transcripts, and all the randomly selected words from the dictionary. There are listings for events I’m doing, such as the SF Sketchfest show on 25 January, and, just before that, PodCon in Seattle. There’s merch - including an excellent Winterval riff on the festive sweater, featuring several different cultures for all occasions that require multidenominational festivewear. I’ve also put together a festive gift guide for word enthusiasts. All of this is at the show’s forever home theallusionist.org.