- Washington Post
In This Village in Eastern Germany, Letters to Santa Get a Reply
13:21 JST, December 24, 2023
HIMMELPFORT, Germany – While American children have long been sending their Christmas lists to the North Pole, in Germany, Father Christmas can be found much closer by – in the eastern village of Himmelpfort or Heaven’s Gate – and he is much more likely to write back.
Almost 40 years ago, postal worker Kornelia Matzke unwittingly turned her town into the focus for children’s yuletide wishes when she started answering the letters that showed up in her small town post office.
It was 1984, Germany was divided into capitalist west and communist east where Matzke lived, when two letters caught her eye in the mail sorting room. Sent by children in East Berlin and Saxony, also in the east, they were addressed to Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) in Himmelpfort, which is about 50 miles north of the capital Berlin.
“I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away,” she recalled, now 64. After asking a colleague if letters to Father Christmas had arrived before, she was told they were stored away. In the hope of spreading some seasonal magic, Matzke replied – on behalf of Father Christmas and she became the first Himmelpfort “angel.”
Word spread and in the next four years more and more letters came. She and her colleagues would answer around 75 letters every December. When the Berlin Wall came down and Germany reunified, the trickle became a flood and thousands of letters began to arrive every day in the run up to Christmas.
By 1995, Deutsche Post, Germany’s domestic mail service, hired two helpers. Today, that number has increased to 20 to deal with more than 300,000 letters from 60 countries – including American cities from New York to Philadelphia to San Diego, where apparently kids had given up on the North Pole.
Accompanied by Christmas songs on the radio, four angels dressed in shiny gold gowns sit around a table in the festive post office, decorated from floor to ceiling. From mid-November, they tirelessly work through crate after crate of letters to ensure that each one receives a reply by the afternoon of Christmas Eve – when presents are traditionally delivered in Germany. Their work is interrupted only by sporadic exclamations at a particularly artistic or amusing letter.
Gone are the days of handwritten replies but the printed response, created with the help of Matzke, at least mimics the looping cursive of handwriting (either in German or English). The addresses on the envelopes are handwritten.
The wishes over the decades have reflected the changing times and trends. From hopes for the latest gadget to longing to see grandparents during the pandemic years. Some, however, never go out of fashion. In 2022, the top wishes were good health for the family, world peace, a white Christmas, dolls and cars.
In the final push before the big day, even Father Christmas – dressed in his iconic bright red, floor-length robe – is on hand to lighten the load. A quiet knock prompts him to leave his work and open the window where Max, 6, has come to deliver his letter by hand after a three-hour drive with his grandparents from the town of Bitterfeld.
Two big eyes peer out from under a rain sodden jacket and widen at the sight of Father Christmas at the window. With a deep breath, Max bursts into a rendition of the Christmas song, “So viel Heimlichkeit in der Weihnachtszeit” (So much coziness/secrecy at Christmas). His wish list is strictly for Father Christmas’s eyes only.
“After all these years, that’s reward and motivation enough to carry on the magic. Especially today when the days are lived so fast,” said Father Christmas, returning to his desk to a platter of festive treats. “Some of the candy comes for the kids. They know what Father Christmas likes,” he laughs, patting his midriff.
Himmelpfort is one of seven Christmas post offices around Germany and remains the nation’s largest and the only location in the country’s eastern region. But it isn’t just Father Christmas who receives wish lists in Germany. Depending on household and local tradition, children might also write to St. Nicholas or the Christ Child – an angel-like figure in a flowing gown, with blonde, curly hair.
By and large, traditionally Protestant regions in the north and east are visited by Father Christmas, while the traditionally Catholic areas of the west and south receive a call from the Christ Child. St. Nick’s work is finished by Dec. 6 on his feast day.
“There’s not any competition,” Father Christmas chuckles. “It’s just regional differences. But Father Christmas has remained the big one.”
After almost 40 years of answering Christmas wish lists, Chief Angel Matzke and her angelic colleagues have no intentions of giving up their work anytime soon.
“It’s wonderful what this became,” said Matzke. “People could have given up. But that’s why every child should get a letter back – otherwise we stop believing.”
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