How Kennedy and Reagan answered Christmas fears and hopes

US National Christmas Tree 2008" by White House. Photo by Chris Greenberg (Public domain).

US National Christmas Tree 2008 by White House. Photo by Chris Greenberg (Public domain).

Is Santa safe? How is the United States seen around the world?

Presidents speak to citizens and the country about a lot of things, big and small. Sometimes these encompass Christmas and people’s hopes and fears.

Over 50 years ago, President Kennedy responded to a little girl who fretted about Santa at the North Pole, while President Reagan shared a serviceman’s story about his experiences with Vietnamese refugees.

Kennedy, Santa and the Cold War

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy received a letter from a little girl who was worried about what might happen to Santa Claus.

Dear Mr. Kennedy,

Please stop the Russians from bombing the North Pole because they will kill Santa Claus. I am 8 years old. I am in the third grade at Holy Cross School.

Yours truly, Michelle Rochon

President Kennedy wrote back, telling her not to worry.

Dear Michelle,

I was glad to get your letter about trying to stop the Russians from bombing the North Pole and risking the life of Santa Claus.

I share your concern about the atmospheric testing of the Soviet Union, not only for the North Pole but for countries throughout the world; not only for Santa Claus but for people throughout the world.

However, you must not worry about Santa Claus. I talked with him yesterday and he is fine. He will be making his rounds again this Christmas.

Sincerely,

John F. Kennedy

I hope little Michelle (and her family) had a good Christmas after that!

Reagan, a serviceman and America’s place for refugees

Twenty one years later, President Reagan’s Christmas radio address to the nation included a letter from a serviceman overseas.

Reagan called what John Mooney of Wisconsin conveyed “a true Christmas story in the best sense,” saying, “To me, it sums up so much of what is best about the Christmas spirit, the American character, and what this beloved land of ours stands for—not only to ourselves but to millions of less fortunate people around the globe.”

“Dear Mom and Dad,” he wrote, “today we spotted a boat in the water, and we rendered assistance. We picked up 65 Vietnamese refugees. It was about a two-hour job getting everyone aboard, and then they had to get screened by intelligence and checked out by medical and fed and clothed and all that.

“But now they’re resting on the hangar deck, and the kids—most of them seem to be kids . . . are sitting in front of probably the first television set they’ve ever seen, watching ‘Star Wars’. Their boat was sinking as we came alongside. They’d been at sea five days, and had run out of water. All in all, a couple of more days and the kids would have been in pretty bad shape.

“I guess once in awhile,” he writes, “we need a jolt like that for us to realize why we do what we do and how important, really, it can be. I mean, it took a lot of guts for those parents to make a choice like that to go to sea in a leaky boat in hope of finding someone to take them from the sea. So much risk! But apparently they felt it was worth it rather than live in a Communist country.

“For all of our problems, with the price of gas, and not being able to afford a new car or other creature comforts this year… I really don’t see a lot of leaky boats heading out of San Diego looking for the Russian ships out there ….

“After the refugees were brought aboard, I took some pictures, but as usual I didn’t have my camera with me for the REAL picture—the one blazed in my mind ….

“As they approached the ship, they were all waving and trying as best they could to say, ‘Hello America sailor! Hello Freedom man!’ It’s hard to see a boat full of people like that and not get a lump somewhere between chin and bellybutton. And it really makes one proud and glad to be an American. People were waving and shouting and choking down lumps and trying not to let other brave men see their wet eyes. A lieutenant next to me said, ‘Yeah, I guess it’s payday in more ways than one.’ (We got paid today.) And I guess no one could say it better than that.

“It reminds us all of what America has always been—a place a man or woman can come to for freedom. I know we’re crowded and we have unemployment and we have a real burden with refugees, but I honestly hope and pray we can always find room. We have a unique society, made up of cast-offs of all the world’s wars and oppressions, and yet we’re strong and free. We have one thing in common—no matter where our forefathers came from, we believe in that freedom.

“I hope we always have room for one more person, maybe an Afghan or a Pole or someone else looking for a place… where he doesn’t have to worry about his family’s starving or a knock on the door in the night . . .” and where “all men who truly seek freedom and honor and respect and dignity for themselves and their posterity can find a place where they can . . . finally see their dreams come true and their kids educated and become the next generations of doctors and lawyers and builders and soldiers and sailors.
Love, John.”

And then President Reagan went on to say, “Well, I think that letter just about says it all. In spite of everything, we Americans are still uniquely blessed, not only with the rich bounty of our land but by a bounty of the spirit . . . Merry Christmas.

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.