Once again I’m back with Christmas tales! As I’ve discussed every time, I feel a little uncomfortable about sharing this but I’m such a big fan of the program that I do anyway. This year, I felt a range of feelings when dropping off Christmas gifts as part of the Correos Chile "Letters to Santa" program. Some moments were incredibly moving, others disappointing, some even dangerous. Many of the families this year had members who were facing hardships or illness beyond what I could ever imagine, and furthermore, without many resources or help. Getting to the houses, some of which were located in neighborhoods like “la Copa” and “Montedonico,” proved challenging as the houses are not marked well, and its considered dangerous, especially for someone who has no business being there (ej. me.) The collectivo drivers were worried about dropping us off at some of the locations even in broad daylight, and at night it was much worse. There was one crucial moment where we were sure we were getting led into a trap and saw no way out. However, we found all the houses this year, and for the most part it was a success.
|Getting to one of the houses.|
How it works:
For those unfamiliar, letters to the north pole get set out in a box each Christmas at the post office and anybody can read the letters and decide to play Santa and fulfill the Christmas wishes for the family in the letter they choose. The letters may be written by children, on behalf of them, or sometimes by adults. When we deliver the gifts we try to be careful and say "Santa was so busy he needed help delivering some things,” just in case.
Many people are skeptical of doing this because they have heard of "scams." The news has shown images of people writing dozens of letters and filling up their entire house with new electrodomestic devices.
Its understandable that some are skeptical, but sifting through sifting through the box, others were obsessively criticizing the requests and handwriting, “Look at this cursive! There is no way a 2 year old writes this clearly. Que sinverguenza! (shameless) This is a scam!” Of course parents help kids write their letters, just because the handwriting is legible does not mean that the intent is dishonest! Most kids, especially ones who don't realize the nature of this charity, shoot for the stars in their wishes- wanting a Play Station is only natural, it does not mean that is the standard of gift they are used to. Adults also have needs and wishes and may see this as one of the only ways they might help make them come true, that is not necessarily a negative thing.
But yes, I admit, certain things may happen that we may not consider fair. Some kids' letters might not get picked, others may indeed be able to afford a decent Christmas without receiving help, and many people do write more than one letter. Correos Chile was making an effort in 2011 to number and cross check the letters to avoid duplicate gifts to the same house. This effort was well-meaning, though I highly suggest they use a computer to catalogue next year. There were lots of letters falling through the cracks.
Personally, over the past few years I have had almost entirely rewarding experiences. Every letter I have chosen has turned out to be at least seemingly truthful, and every recipient very thankful. Honestly, in almost every case, once I got there I felt somewhat regretful that I didn't have more to give. It has been very eye-opening for me in terms of understanding many things about hardship and Chilean society.
This year we selected six letters, and accompanied a friend on her Santa visit too. Of those 7 total, we know for sure that three of them also received gifts or food from someone else as well, because they had either sent more than one letter or multiple children's letters from the same family had slipped by unnoticed. But also, 5 of 7 had one or more family member with mental or physical illness or disability, usually meaning medical bills, extra costs, inability to work, and often times the need for a caregiver.
I went to drop things off over the week before Christmas. There was house we had a real hard time finding. We knew it was best not to go so late, way after dark, but did anyway. The collectivo driver had a really hard time finding the block we were looking for and drove around, stopping to ask multiple times. He was very concerned that we'd be obvious outsiders walking around this area. Eventually we just had to get out and start walking, though we were approached by a young man very weary of our presence. He insisted we tell him who we were looking for, and wanted us to follow him down an alley to lead us there. Our gut instinct told us not to follow him, but he started to get mad and insist. Pretty soon we gave in, and to both of our surprise, he actually took us to the right place. We were going to the house of a young mother whose husband was in jail for theft and she was unable to work because she couldn’t leave the child with sick, alcoholic family members. All she wanted was Christmas dinner. When we finally got there, we didn't get to meet them, it turned out the child had suffered a bad accident that day and they were in the hospital.
The very first letter I selected was written by a child whose parents were in jail. We had such a hard time finding the house, walking around the area for hours. We even called the family multiple times and they claimed they were coming to meet us at a centralized spot but they never showed up. Finally we found the place dipping down over the side of a quebrada with the most AMAZING ocean view. Apparently the grandma had surgery that day and was sending the grandkids to go find us, but they were afraid because they thought their neighborhood was dangerous so they never left the front steps. We brought gifts and a Christmas dinner, though we felt terrible because we brought a soccer ball for the letter writer, who I thought was a young boy, but it turned out it was a girl with a boy’s name!! Luckily I had a little lotion set with some candy that I could give her, but when she opened it she was obviously disappointed.
The letter that reached me the most was of a girl older than myself that had many serious diseases. She has been bedridden her whole life. Her mother wrote on her behalf asking for diapers and food to stock up the pantry, and a doll that she could give to her 3 year old niece that helped take care of her. This visit was emotionally hard for me to do, as the girl asked us to sit and visit with her on her bed. I could not imagine a life like that, furthermore her father is expected to die soon and the mother cannot work because her care requires 24/7 attention.
One of the most thought-provoking things about visiting this girl was that she would not believe that I wasn’t Chilean. She laughed it off as a joke first then told us to stop lying when she was told I was from the U.S. I wasn’t sure what this means, but I wonder if she has never met a foreigner before, and possibly doesn’t have enough interaction with people to notice that I am different from the rest. She seemed confused when I asked her if she noticed that I spoke funny with an accent. In the end I felt terrible because when we got back home I realized I had forgotten to give her the doll for her niece. Its sitting in my living room. I’m contemplating going back with it, though it would feel a little awkward.
Accompanying my friend to drop off her gifts was one of the most rewarding moments of playing Santa this year. I was a little nervous about this because its her first Christmas in Chile and I wanted it to feel worth it to her and be a good experience. It was beyond what I could’ve expected. The letter was written by a little toddler that lived with her grandmother. The grandmother was actually quite young, and was taking care of many grandchildren and her baby daughter as well, as the mother of the kids had drug problems. When they came to meet us, the toddler ran as fast as she could with arms wide open to give me friend a hug and and spent the whole afternoon in her arms, giving her big sloppy, sticky, candy-cane kisses. It was adorable. They took us back to their house, which they were building in a toma (land taken over and claimed by a group of people), and the kids were so incredibly excited by the gifts. They had been writing every year but this year was the first time they’d been chosen. Some of the brothers and sisters had been chosen as well. The grandma made a really sad comment, however, saying that she wanted to help out with drug rehabilitation but it didn't work out because more people want to keep using drugs than recover.