Santa, Father Christmas, St Nicholas, whatever the name, the popularity of this figure from our Christmas traditions remains steadfast, but where does Santa live and how did the letter writing tradition begin?
When I was a girl, I sat down to write a letter to Father Christmas every year, and then the letter would be ceremoniously sent up the chimney over a roaring fire. When my mother died a few years ago, amongst her personal effects, I discovered a charred letter, complete with illustrations, addressed to Father Christmas, The North Pole. How my mother achieved this conjuring trick of rescuing this letter so she could find out what I wanted for Christmas, I will never know.
In 1996, a letter was found in a bedroom chimney after 85 years dated 8 December 1911:
Dear Santa Claus,
Last year you brought me many nice presents and I think you were very kind indeed. I expect you would like to know what I should like you to bring me this year. Well, I should like you to bring me a storybook, a postcard album, and a box of chocolates. We have a little baby and we would like you to bring her a rattle that will blow. I hope you will remember the very poor children in the slums and large towns. I might stay awake for some time to see you come in our bedroom to put the things in my stocking the night you come. Our house is on the common.
With much love, I remain your little friend, Mabel.
I much admire the altruism in Mabel’s letter, and I hope she received her gifts despite the letter getting stuck up the chimney all those years. The tradition of sending letters up chimneys probably originates with messages to the gods burnt to float up into the sky through smoke holes in Siberian winter dwellings, according to Patrick Harding in his book, Christmas Unwrapped.
Or perhaps because the tradition of hanging stockings by the chimney to await presents from St Nicholas, Santa Claus or Father Christmas, so graphically recited in the classic poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, by Clement Clarke Moore, published in The Sentinel 23 December 1823, then it would seem logical to send the letters up the chimney to await the arrival of the annual Christmas visitor.
As for the letter writing tradition, in 1863, it is likely that an illustration by American artist Thomas Nast showing Santa reading a letter sent to him by a child, encouraged this practice in the United States and Great Britain, which has spread throughout the world today.
Now of course in the modern world, we can e-mail Santa, and we can even get personalised videos from the jolly man in red, although posting letters is still just as popular. But where do these messages go? There seems to be a number of claims to the Santa place of residence. In 1869, a poem by George Webster, Santa Claus Poem, first suggested that Santa was based at the North Pole. Not all countries agree. Norwegians believe he is in Drøbak, the Danes say Greenland, and for the Finns it is Lapland. Canada has a dedicated postcode, HOH OHO, American children send their mail to North Pole, Alaska, or the aptly named, Santa Claus near Christmas Lake, Indiana must get a few too. In the UK, letters must be addressed to Santa’s Grotto, Reindeer Land XM4 5HQ, but of the 6 million letters sent annually, 600,000 find their way to the Elf sorting office in Rovaniemi , Finland, where 40,000 of the best letters (effort, politeness and a return address are key), get a reply.
In Oxford, between the First and Second World Wars, the Tolkien family left their letters by the fireplace, and for twenty years, the three children received replies from Father Christmas, address, The North Pole with tales of adventure at The North Pole. These are now published as The Father Christmas Letters by JRR Tolkien.
Having a base on the North Pole is fraught with hazards. Unlike the South Pole which is on a land mass, the North Pole is on shifting ice on the Arctic Ocean, located 400 nautical miles north of Greenland. Any structures, like the Russian Barneo Ice Camp, are temporary and need to be rebuilt every year. Under international law, no country owns the North Pole or the region of the Arctic Ocean surrounding it.
The 2008 Ilulissat Declaration made clear that the present law of the sea, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, (UNCLOS), 1982, provides a solid foundation for the responsible management of the Arctic Ocean by the 5 bordering states, Canada, Denmark, Norway, the United States and the Russian Federation, and that there was no need to develop a new regime after the European Parliament called for a multilateral convention modelled on the 1959 Antarctic Treaty.
A Russian submarine caused consternation when it planted a flag on the North Pole sea bed in 2007 on the Lomonosov Ridge, a 1,240-mile underwater mountain range that crosses the polar region and the then Deputy Chair of Duma, Artur Chilingarov declared, “the Arctic is Russian”. It was seen as no more than a publicity stunt, and thanks in part to the Arctic Council (formed in 1996), a forum for the 8 recognised sovereign states in the area, a spirit of co-operation prevails. Moreover, whatever happens on the seabed has no influence on the “land” above, and it is the role of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea,(ITLOS), to resolve conflict and clarify any legal claims to the continental shelf on the seabed. (More resources for ILOS studies.)
Although a U.S. Geological Survey says this area contains 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 15 percent of oil, the high cost of extraction would make this very unlikely.
So Santa’s North Pole hideout seems safe for now.