In November, a heartbreaking letter from a gay boy to Santa went viral after it was shared on Twitter.
"Dear Santa, do you support the LGBTQ community and if you can speak to God, can you tell him I love him, and if he loves me for being gay[?]" the child asked in the note, which had been posted to a website run by USPS Operation Santa collecting letters penned to Father Christmas.
As it turns out, this letter had been read before — and received a response. Michael Muñoz is an "adopter elf" with Operation Santa, one of a legion of volunteers replying to North Pole letters with words and gifts.
Muñoz, a queer Latino New Yorker, almost did not volunteer with the USPS program last year because he "needed a break." However, the letter from the boy changed his mind.
"I was heartbroken point-blank," Muñoz told The Advocate. "Every year I read dozens of letters from children; some ask for toys, but most ask for clothes or presents for their moms as they can't afford anything. What made this different and really difficult for me to read was that he didn't ask for anything physical.
"All he wanted was to know that he was loved and accepted. So how could I not answer his letter, being a queer Latino male who growing up had those same feelings? Within minutes I had texted a dozen or so of my family, chosen and blood, and we were off to the races to make it the biggest, gayest, love-filled Christmas he hopefully will remember forever!"
As seen in the new documentary Dear Santa, Muñoz did indeed "mobilize" his LGBTQ+ friends to collect queer-inclusive children's literature, which was sent to the boy to let him know that he is indeed loved.
While Muñoz often fields questions about his work — if what the children write is true, if a reply is acceptable in the case of a queer young person — he ultimately "went with my Santa's gut" in his response. "We set out to do something good for someone from our hearts with all the best intentions in mind," he says. "What happens on the other side of that letter is out of our control."
One year later, Muñoz has not heard back from the boy, but he stays on his mind. "I have thought about [the boy] often throughout this past year and meditated and prayed that he is safe, healthy, well, and most importantly, surrounded by love," he said.
He also has a message for all LGBTQ+ kids who feel unloved this holiday season. "Love and joy come in many forms, and sometimes it finds you and other times you have to find it for yourself," he said. "There, unfortunately, will always be a bully or someone with something negative to say, but if you love yourself, give love, and spread love they can't affect you.
"Remember, Rudolph was different, bullied, and dare I say, unloved. But in the end, it was his differences that made him beautiful and a hero. Your differences are what make you unique and beautiful and no one can take that away from you."
Muñoz's story is one of many featured in Dear Santa, a new documentary by Dana Nachman about the hundreds of thousands of letters addressed to Santa each year, and the legion of USPS Operation Santa workers and volunteers who respond to them. The film covers the history of the 100-year-old program and a sampling of the Santa helpers who keep it running in the present day.
Dear Santa will screen in select theaters and VOD beginning Friday. See a clip of Muñoz from the film below as well as a Q&A with the director, Nachman, about the inspiring program.
Want to become an elf yourself for a child in need? Visit USPSOperationSanta.com for more information.
The Advocate: Tell us why you wanted to make a documentary about Operation Santa.
Dear Santa director Dana Nachman: About eight years ago my mom bought me a book about Operation Santa — the United States Postal Service’s program that helps Santa get all of his letters answered. Every year around Christmastime I would read this book to my kids, and I would think what an amazing book, but thought a film about it would be even more amazing. I loved the backbone of the story about the magic of childhood and the hopes and dreams of kids (and some adults too). The thought of being able to lean in to the fantasy of Christmas made me very excited. And then, to be able to focus on all of the human elves that spend the time to make these dreams come true also was exciting to me, all the while understanding that much of the time when we do things for others, we are the ones that get the most out of it! To make a film that focuses on this, one of life’s biggest hacks, was thrilling to me!
From your research, what surprised you most about the program?
I think what surprised me the most was all of the letters that come in where children are asking for things for other people. That really slayed me! To put yourself in the position of these children where they have one shot at reaching Santa and they ask for something for their mom or their grandma or their sister or brother. That really was something. And it wasn’t just one or two letters — there were hundreds upon hundreds of letters like that!
What was the most bizarre request, in your opinion, of a gift from Santa?
The funniest one I read was a kid asking for a baby brother! I love that one. There was another really cool one where a kid said he had a very wild imagination and he wanted Santa to make his stories come to life. I just thought that was the best! I wouldn’t call it bizarre but super creative! Loved that!
The most heartbreaking?
I’d say the most heartbreaking thing that I came across while reading the letters was that there were so many kids who were asking for a mattress. When I read the first letter that said this I was so struck by it, but then to see that there were many letters where this is what people were asking for really hit home for me. Intellectually, we know there is great poverty in America, but to know that children felt the need to ask Santa for a mattress was heartbreaking. It made me think about how these children were sleeping — were they on the floor? Were they two to a bed?
A moment that will really resonate with LGBTQ+ viewers is a letter from a young boy asking Santa if God loves him. Why was it important for you to include that letter in the film?
I’d say this letter was tied for the most heartbreaking with the mattress letters for me. Reading that letter, you just want to find this kid and scoop him up and hug him and tell him how much we all love him and how much God loves him — and of course, Santa too! I’ll never forget, I was driving home from a shoot in Chico, Calif., with some fire victims who were going to be in the film and I got a call from my producer telling me about this letter, and I almost veered off the road! It was an overarching goal of ours to make the film as diverse as possible, but really we were hamstrung by the letters. When a kid wrote a letter we had no idea anything about them other than the letter itself, so we were thrilled to get ahold of this letter and be able to highlight it.
What happened to the boy?
As you see in the film, we follow as Michael Muñoz, a longtime Operation Santa Elf, gathered gifts for him. He got children’s books about LGBTQ+ rights and the LGBTQ+ community. And also a rainbow Santa hat! The boy also got presents from another secret Santa elf as well. So hopefully he felt very loved and that Santa answered his question with a resounding yes!
In addition to the elves who wrapped the pro-LGBTQ+ kids’ books for Will, a same-sex couple also comes to the (animal) rescue by delivering a puppy and then a rabbit to different families. Why was it important for you to share a little of the stories of the LGBTQ+ elves as well?
What I love so much about this is that we didn’t include Kelsey and Val’s story because they were a couple, we again just followed the letters! And they happened to be the elves that stepped up! They are big in the animal rescue community, so they obviously are Santa’s go-to when he receives requests for pets. We were so happy that it turned out that we could represent the LGBTQ+ elf community in such a big way, and I would love to say we planned it, but that would be untrue! We just followed the letters! It does speak to what kind of community this community is — big-hearted and ready to jump in when needed!
After a year of demonization, the USPS emerged as a hero during the presidential election. How do you hope your documentary further impacts public opinion about the work it does?
Yes! What a year it has been for USPS! I absolutely loved working with USPS. Our collaboration on this movie started with a cold call email I sent to the USPS press office. I told them I wanted to tell this story, and I was so lucky that they trusted me and my team with their beautiful story! Every shoot that we had where I got to interface with USPS staff really was a joy. They were all salt-of-the-earth people trying to make our communities stronger through their everyday work and this program! I was so impressed by the hundreds of USPS workers that I got to interface with on this film. And then as we were editing I was monitoring what they were going through throughout the spring with COVID and the summer and fall with the election, and all while we were furiously editing what I hoped would be a love letter to the USPS. I sincerely hope this can end a very taxing year for USPS on a high note!
How will Operation Santa and the surrounding volunteer efforts be impacted by COVID-19?
I really think this is going to be the biggest and best year Operation Santa has ever seen. For the first time, the program is going nationwide all online due to COVID, so anyone can read the letters and apply (all good-hearted people get approved by Santa) to become an elf and adopt as many letters as they would like! I think it’s going to be amazing!
For our readers who want to volunteer with Santa this year and beyond, how can they and where can they learn more?
The letters go live on USPSOperationSanta.com on December 4, the same day as our film comes out. My suggestion would be to watch the film so you understand everything you need to know about becoming an elf and then log on, read some letters, and I dare you not to adopt one or 100, for that matter!
Growing up, what did you ask of Santa?
Funny thing is, I’m Jewish and I never once have written a letter to Santa!
What would you ask of him today?
I definitely plan to write to him this year because I need a really great idea for my next film. This one is going to be hard to top, but I need another life-affirming film to work on, and stat!
Dear Santa comes out Friday in select theaters and VOD. Watch the trailer below.