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Letters to Santa - expressions of needs, wants, and dreams

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Letter to SantaWhat do Christmas gifts mean to children? We examine the features and styles of a selection of the letters children write to Santa Claus. The contents and style of 314 authentic letters sent by UK children to Santa Claus were analysed using an underlying interpretive consumer research approach.

Letters to Santa contain expressions of needs, wants, desires, hopes, and dreams related to Christmas. The majority of letters were expressions of wants and desires, while only a few letters contained features of needs or dreaming. This implies that for children Christmas seems to be non-spiritual, and they are more concerned with having things rather than dreams coming true.

Analysis of letters to Santa offers an opportunity to identify the spirit of post-modern consumption with its contradictory aspects, and understand children as consumers. It is essential to recognize and understand the nature of the desires of today's children, as they are an influential set of consumers.

Contrary to previous studies, the central focus of the analysis is on gift request styles and letters as meaningful entities, not just on product categories or brands as such.

What better describes and expresses western society and consumer culture than Christmas? Indeed, the mass hysteria of Christmas consumption has made many of us wonder whether Christmas spirit is still truly present or only visible in the adverts and movies. Supposing it is missing from adults, is there any left among children?

This study is founded in the post-modern consumption studies and discussions related to gift request behaviour at Christmas time. Consumption researchers have traditionally highlighted the conceptual contradiction between rational needs and irrational desires. When analysing gift request styles it is evident that the expressions of consumption-related needs, wants, hopes, desires and dreams are the central focus of interest. Yet, to our knowledge, there aren’t any previous studies that have focused on these facets of children's requesting gifts.

Characteristics of letters to Santa

Santa receives hundreds of thousands letters from all over the world every year. The empirical data was gathered from those letters that are addressed to the Santa Claus Greeting Centre, at the North Pole in Finland. We chose 314 letters, of which 176 were written by girls, and 138 by boys.

General comparison of gift requests with previous studies on letters to Santa

In general, British children in our study do not seem to differ greatly from the Australian and American children who were the subject of previous studies. Children seem to be very brand-oriented in their gift requests. It seems that boys wish for brands more often than girls do, but both percentages were high. Even though the analysis didn’t focus on age difference, it was noticeable that brands dominated the wish lists among all age groups.

Regarding the communication strategies of the writers, girls' letters to Santa were expressive, polite and contained indirect requests, whereas those written by boys were shorter, more task-oriented, and contained direct requests. Gender differences were visible in the contents of gift requests. It was rare to find mixing in the traditional sex-typed requests of boys and girls. However, there were some common gift requests for both genders, such as game consoles, though the gender difference manifested itself in specific colour choices.

Classification of the request styles

Firstly, we examined whether the requests were specific (brand names or other details) or general (on a product category level or abstract ideas). This distinction highlighted the different nature of desires and needs. Secondly, we discussed whether requests found in the letters were expressions of ordinary and material wishes, or were they based on Santa myth and imagination. In our analysis, a gift request that was ordinary and material was seen as a reflection of materialism, and representing the wants, needs, and desires of a child, whereas a gift request that represents mythical and imaginative ideas brings out the more spiritual nature of Christmas and the aspects of dreaming, and hopes. Finally, five distinctive groups of request styles were distinguished and given titles:

  1. The paradise of presents
  2. The one that I want
  3. Dreams come true
  4. The choice of Santa Claus
  5. Waiting for a Christmas miracle

The letters were mostly about specific and material gifts. Wishes on a general level and rationalized with needs were very rare. This suggests that Christmas gifts are not about satisfying general needs but fulfilling specific desires. Altruistic or flights of fantasy wishes were also rather rare.

The paradise of presents

The largest group consisted of letters with a long and mixed list of gifts, with or without brand names. Both girls (61 per cent) and boys (68 per cent) contributed to this group. Requests were detailed, even with descriptions including the page number in a toy catalogue, price of the gift, and where it might be bought. The longest letter contained 51 gift requests, implying that requesting might have been more about dreaming than wanting or expecting to get all of those gifts. When children used templates for letters with pre-written numbering or a specific number of lines for the requests, children filled all of them, and the amount of wishes was typically larger than in other letters. It was also common to wish for a surprise at the end of the long specified list of gifts. This implied that these wish lists were tantamount to orders, with no place for the gift giver's free choice other than in the final surprise gift.

The one that I want

The second group included letters with only one or two gift requests. In this case, the gift requested is important and carefully considered. 65 letters belonged to this group, of which 35 were from girls and 30 from boys. There were no clear differences between genders, but differences by age were found. Those who wished for only one gift were relatively young (pre-school age), and they often expressed their wishes by drawing. This was expected, as writing skills at that age aren’t fully developed. The gift requested was not necessarily expensive, although it was the only one. Among boys, the wish typically related to playing with games and cars, whereas little girls wished for Bratz dolls and make-up sets, and older girls wanted more expensive gifts like computers and DVD-players.

Dreams come true

The third analysis group implied that wishes are highly imaginative and based on a certain fantasy of becoming somebody (e.g. becoming a princess) or having something (e.g. a pony) that is not currently possible. Of 21 letters in this group, 15 were from girls and only six from boys. It seems that dreaming might be more common for girls than boys. Overall, this group is small, and can’t be considered as typical.

The choice of Santa Claus

The fourth group consisted of unspecified and general gift requests, which give Santa an opportunity to choose whatever he would like to give. Evidently, a gift becomes more pure and sacred when given as a surprise. The surprise gift was not necessarily the only gift requested, but it was the one emphasized. Only 13 letters were classified this way. Letters in this group typically had very polite and humble phrasing, such as "I would be very happy if you could bring me some presents on your sleigh when you come on Christmas Eve, please".

Waiting for a Christmas miracle

We called the fifth group ‘Waiting for a Christmas miracle’ because of the high level of Christmas spirit and hope relating to the gift requests. Letters expressed faith that Santa could fulfil any request, even to accomplish an impossible task. Requests in this group were perceptibly unselfish and/or emotional, such as "Would you get my dad a happy heart?" Only 13 letters fitted into this group, in contrast to ‘the paradise of presents’.

Christmas - a festival of shopping

Christmas seems to be a festival of shopping for branded toys for kids. The largest group of request styles is ‘the paradise of presents’ exemplified by long wish lists and specific requests, followed by ‘The one that I want’. However, ‘The choice of Santa Claus’ shows that children long for surprises, and ‘Waiting for a Christmas miracle’ manifests the imagination of kids and mystical experience of Christmas gifts. However, this dimension was a minority segment of the letters. This is surprising given general expectations that children aren’t affected by the restrictive boundaries of rational thinking, but are free to express whatever they wish.

Instead of wish lists, we could use want lists or even orders. However, some glimpses of traditional Christmas spirit can be seen in the letters, evidenced by wishes for gifts for other people and for pets. Almost every letter contained the Christmas greeting and a word of thanks. In addition, there is a clear emphasis on gifts being earned by good behaviour. Partly this is of course the traditional way of writing, but there is truth in these words, which emphasize the reciprocity of gift giving. In addition, the children often remembered that Santa deserves something too when he brings those gifts that are wished for. Many letters included words such as "I will leave you a mince pie, milk and a carrot for your reindeer".

Interestingly, gift requests by children seem to be full of post-modern contradictions of consumption, exhibiting general tensions between:

  • the material versus the symbolic;
  • the social versus the self;
  • desire versus satisfaction;
  • rationality versus irrationality; and
  • creativity versus constraint.

Multifaceted gift requests reflect different nuances in Christmas spirit, and indeed different kinds of needs and desires. On the one hand, letters show the materialistic side of Christmas and the dominance of brand names amongst wishes; on the other hand, they show imaginative features and altruism. There are no strict boundaries between rationality and irrationality, or between wanting and dreaming. Taken further, when there are no strict boundaries, it is evident that managing different wants and dreams can also be a very educative experience for a child. After all, writing a letter to Santa is a unique opportunity for a child to express their desires openly, and for once, act as a real consumer that has a voice to be heard.

December 2010.

This is a shortened version of "Understanding what Christmas gifts mean to children", which originally appeared in Young Consumers, Volume 10, Number 3, 2009.

The authors are Jenniina Halkoaho, and Pirjo Laaksonen.