EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 22, 2013

An 1899 Christmas story lives on

Haverhill boy's Christmas wishlist may be oldest existing letter to Santa Claus

By Mark E. Vogler
mvogler@eagletribune.com

---- — A “Dear Santa” letter that 8-year-old Harry J. Hyland wrote in his third grade class at the Wingate School in Haverhill 114 years ago is rekindling the spirit of Christmas for one family.

Hyland died in 1963. The Wingate School, which once stood at the corner of Broadway and Hilldale Avenue, no longer exists.

But, the letter Hyland wrote on Dec. 21, 1899 has survived for more than a century and found new life as a family heirloom in the Vermont home of his grandson, Lawrence native Joseph P. Blanchette.

For nearly a decade at Christmas time, Blanchette has broken out the letter and a “thank you” note that his grandfather wrote to Santa Claus in January 1900.

“I hang them up on the wall or set them up in the house,” Blanchette, 63, a retired high school history teacher, said of the letters — both of them preserved in picture frames

They may also be the oldest “Dear Santa” letters in existence today.

“It’s always kind of an interesting discussion point this time of year. It triggers people to start telling stories on their own — about what Christmas Eve was like, or writing letters to Santa or what Santa brought them,” Blanchette said.

The earliest date of verifiable letters to Santa belongs to two children from Dublin, Ireland in 1911, according to World Record Academy. The children asked Santa for a baby doll, a waterproof with a hood, a pair of gloves, a toffee apple, a gold penny, a silver sixpence and a long toffee.

“A letter to Santa, written in 1911, was discovered by John Byrne while puttering about inside his home; penned by a pair of siblings (10-year-old Hannah and 7-year-old Fred), the letter miraculously survived inside a fireplace for 100 years, setting the world record for the Oldest Letter to Santa,” World Record Academy posted on its website Dec. 23, 2011.

That record still stands, Tom Howard of the academy confirmed in an email to The Eagle-Tribune. The Miami, Fla.-based World Record Academy, a member of Google News Network, promotes itself on its website as “the leading international organization which certify world records.”

Meanwhile, another ancient “Dear Santa” letter — written by a 7-year-old child from London, Ontario in 1915 — captured national attention earlier this month on the ABC television network program Good Morning America.

“Will you please send me a box of paints, also a nine cent reader, and a school bag to put them in,” Homer Mellen wrote in his letter. “And if you have any nuts, or candy, or toys to spare, would you kindly send me some.”

Homer’s son, Larry Mellen, 79, shared the letter with Good Morning America, to show how many children of today take Christmas for granted because they receive so many more gifts.

Twelve years older than the world record

“Harry Hyland’s letters are 12 years older than the current record holder,” Blanchette said in an interview.

Blanchette, a 1963 graduate of St. Patrick’s Grammar School in Lawrence, received his diploma four years later from Austin Preparatory School in Reading. He recalled his mother — the late Nancy Hyland Blanchette — gave him an old folder about 15 years ago which contained his grandfather’s grammar school papers. She had received the folder from her mother or father — Harry Hyland — who died in May 1963.

The old folder, about an inch thick, contained a stack of more than 60 pages — math exercises, art work, spelling exercises — most with “Wingate School” hand written along with grade levels (3rd, 4th and 5th grade).

Included was the “Dear Santa” letter written on lined paper, 6.75 inches wide and 8.5 high, bearing “a more “fibrous” texture than the paper we use today.”

“Please bring me a football, an air rifle and a golf stick,” the young boy wrote in neat, cursive penmanship. He signed it, “Your little friend, Harry W. Highland.”

Blanchette, who prides himself as “the family archivist,” said he was fascinated enough by young Harry’s letter to frame it.

“His simple and polite letter, in remarkably clear penmanship, reflects the wishes of most every young boy over the past 100 years; a football, a golf 'stick,' and like Ralphie in the 1983 film classic 'A Christmas Story,' an air rifle,” Blanchette said.

“Harry’s ‘thank you’ letter to Santa Claus, written the first week in January 1900, tells us of a young boy whose wish list went unheeded by Santa, but who was thankful nonetheless for the simple gifts that he found under the tree Christmas morning: candy and nuts, a toy top, a winter cap and gloves, a handkerchief and, thankfully, a hook and ladder fire truck,” Blanchette said.

A 'neat’ link to his past

Blanchette figures the folder containing his grandfather’s papers probably sat in a drawer for several years before he began perusing it. Once he did, he realized the Santa letters were of historical value to him personally, from a cultural and social standpoint.

“I got thinking, ‘isn’t it neat what my grandfather was writing to Santa about, around the turn of the century?’ The letters are very special,” Blanchette said.

“Many of us have vital records and pictures of ancestors we may have never met. We know their birth dates and when they died. But we rarely have anything else that can offer us a glimpse into the realities of their daily lives,” Blanchette said.

“Letters like these bring me closer to my grandfather and who he was. Holding and reading something he wrote as a child over a century ago — something so personal and sincere — and so similar to things I wrote at Christmas a half century ago, is like touching him again. It is a special connection with my past,” he said.

If it weren’t for his grandfathers’ old grammar school papers, Blanchette said he would never had known about the Wingate School or the “harsh financial realities” that often dwarfed a young child’s wishes for Christmas gifts from Santa.

Harry, an only-child, was born in the Bradford section of Haverhill in 1891, to an Irish mother, Mary Ann Mullen, and John Barden Hyland, a shoemaker of English descent. He lived at 6 Curtis Street in Haverhill in 1899, about a half-mile walk from the Wingate School.

“As with many families then and today, the Hyland family lived modestly and decisions about Christmas gifts often had significant financial implications,” Blanchette said.

Blanchette, who was born and grew up in South Lawrence, later moved to Vermont to attend St. Michael’s College from which he graduated in 1971.

Along with being a history teacher, he dabbled with genealogy. Growing up with a “French” identity, he traced “that side” of the family all the way back to the 15th century.

His dad, Joseph C. Blanchette of Lawrence, now 91, has a French last name, but is also half Irish. In the early 1980s, while traveling from Vermont for a family cookout, Blanchette said he got acquainted with his family’s Irish history. In search of those roots, he invested a decade of research that led to the publishing of his book, “The View From Shanty Pond: An Irish Immigrant’s Look at Life in a New England Mill Town.”

What about Harry?

Harry later followed in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather — all who worked in the shoe industry, according to Blanchette’s history of the Hyland family. After marrying Marion Franklin in 1922, he lived in Andover, where he later owned Hyland’s Shoe Store at 14 Main St. They had two daughters, Janice Hyland Johnson and Nancy Hyland Blanchette. Harry was 72 when he died of heart attack at Hale Hospital in Haverhill.

Children writing letters to Santa Claus has been an American holiday tradition, one that has been embraced by the U.S. Postal Service for more than a century. The USPS’ Santa letter answering began in 1912 and has evolved into “Letters to Santa.” Hundreds of thousands of children each year send letters to “Santa Claus, North Pole, Alaska.” Postal “elves” sort the letter choosing the most needy ones. The public, charitable organizations and corporations team up with USPS to answer the dreams of many children.

“It appears that Harry’s letter to Santa was a school activity organized by his teacher on Thursday, December 21, 1899,” Blanchette said.

“Not only was this activity an excellent third-grade exercise in grammar and cursive penmanship, the letter to Santa was obviously brought home for Harry’s parents to see, giving them an 11th hour idea of Harry’s desires just days before Christmas morning, the following Monday. As mothers have done for generations, Harry’s mother cherished and saved her only son’s letters to Santa,” he said.

Blanchette believes he’s got the oldest one — and one that will be passed down to future generations of his family.

“Yes Harry, there is a Santa Claus,” he said, recalling the 1897 editorial in the New York Sun, which included the famous line “Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus” in response to a letter-to-the editor from 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon.