'Dear Santa' documentary a heartwarming gift about the power of generosity

“Dear Santa” - ★ ★ ★ ½

Dana Nachman's documentary “Dear Santa” is an accomplished journalistic work of nonfiction that profiles altruistic human actions at their true Christmas best.

Considering the sheer number of outrageously selfish and insensitive acts we witness every day in the news, “Dear Santa” has arrived in the St. Nick of time.

In 1912, U.S. Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock authorized postal employees and citizens to respond to the hundreds of thousands of letters addressed to Santa Claus at the North Pole every year.

Through this program, which became known as Operation Santa, the USPS allows the public, as volunteer “adopter elves,” to read these letters, then fulfill as many children's Christmas wishes as they can.

Most of the letters ask for what you might expect: a dog, a cat, an electronic gadget, even a dinosaur. Then come the surprise requests, such as the boy who asks Santa for his love and God's love, because he's gay.

Dana Nachman's "Dear Santa" documentary focuses on letters to St. Nick and volunteer "elves" who try to fulfill the sometimes heartbreaking wishes. Courtesy of IFC Films

Or the New York boy who wants to take his family on a limousine ride, something he could never afford.

Or the girl who asks for basic things for her struggling family, recovering from a massive fire that destroyed their home in Paradise, California.

One adopter elf named Damion (the elves here only get first names) tells how he grew up so poor, he slept on a mattress on the floor. He wrote Santa asking for a radio so he could hear music, and also asked for an alarm clock for his single mother.

Santa sent him an alarm clock radio that year.

Now, Damion operates his own nonprofit that supports Operation Santa, a testimonial to the positive influences of kindness and generosity.

The first two thirds of “Dear Santa” devote themselves to how hundreds of adopter elves sift through stacks of letters to find practical requests they can grant, often reaching for tissues as they read them.

One elf notes how many children ask nothing for themselves, only for others.

Dana Nachman's "Dear Santa" documentary focuses on letters to St. Nick and volunteer "elves" who try to fulfill the wishes. Courtesy of IFC Films

The climactic ending takes place on Christmas Day, where we witness sheer astonishment on the faces of the children as they watch an elf personally make good on those letters. Here is one place where silence would have been the better option over composer Dave Tweedie's music. Those faces supply all the emotion the scene requires.

“Dear Santa” is exactly the sort of morally enhancing storytelling you'd expect from Nachman, whose previous documentaries include “Batkid Begins” (San Francisco transforms into Gotham City as a Make-A-Wish project for a cancer-survivor boy) and “Pick of the Litter” (puppies vie to become guide dogs for the blind). The latter can be accessed on Netflix.

A word of advice: Keep some tissues accessible. If you don't need them while watching “Dear Santa,” you've seen too many “Friday the 13th” sequels.

Directed by: Dana Nachman

Other: An IFC Films release. Available on demand. For general audiences. 84 minutes

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