Little Sophie, 6, starts her letter to Santa with concern for his health: “To Santa, How are you? I hope you don’t get the virus so you can come to Dubai.”
As well as new trainers and treats for her dogs, Lily’s most ardent gift request is that he might be able to help make the world virus-free next year: “For 2021 my greatest wish will be that COVID goes away.”
Shirani says she doesn’t need any more material things this year: “Christmas will not be like the normal Christmas celebrations we did all the years before because of COVID-19. But I am hoping that it will still be a good Christmas to celebrate. This year I am not writing any wish list because I have got everything I have got and there is nothing else I want to ask. Hope you are well Santa, please write back to me.”
While an unsigned letter to Santa asks for just three things: “1) Work with salary, 2) Transferring to a new villa with dog, 3) Go this year to Canada with my lovely family.”
Processed by the elves at Santa’s charming wooden post office in children’s store Egg & Soldiers in Times Square Center on Shiekh Zayed Road, the emotional toll of 2020’s pandemic leaps off the pages of the piles of letters that they have received in the ‘Letter To Santa’ initiative, which the store started up for the first time this year.
From the meticulously neat handwriting of a 10-year-old, to the childish scrawls and felt-tip drawings of littler kids, each letter reveals the heartfelt longing of Generation COVID: the children who have spent the bulk of this year confined to home, sheathed in masks, distanced from their playmates, and who will grow up in the shadow of one of the worst pandemics in history.
“We have received more than 750 letters to Santa, which is so much more than expected,” says Sofi Chabowski, British, owner of Eggs & Soldiers.
“We wanted to ensure each child received a handwritten reply from the big man himself, although letters were immediately coming in so quickly that we had to call in some elves to help – and fast! After such a restricted year, and with so many festive plans changed or cancelled, we made the decision to bring as much Christmas sparkle as we could to our community, and we've seen so many excited faces posting letters and picking up their replies, that it has been so worthwhile.”
Chabowski says that reading the letters has been quite an emotional process, “and one that has also made the whole team feel very humbled and connected – to each other and to our customers.
“The older children who clearly understand the situation have been writing about the tough year they have been through, how much they wish the pandemic would end, that people would not get sick, that they could travel to see family. Many have not mentioned toys or presents for themselves at all.”
Ruth Kiernan, co-founder of the children’s bookshop Bookworm, which has stores in Al Safa and The Meadows as well as online, says that she’s noticed similar trends in her own Santa’s postbox initiative.
“We’ve been overwhelmed by the response,” says Kiernan. “Many of the children have been concerned about Santa keeping well, mentioning the pandemic and asking Santa to keep himself safe.
“Lots of children have said that all they want this Christmas is for the pandemic to go away.
“Some have said that all they want is to be able to travel to Lapland and see the elves, while one girl asked ‘Why does Santa still give presents to children who are bad?’ That was a tough one for Santa to answer…”
Kiernan says they introduced the initiative for the first time because the pandemic has made Christmas so much more restricted for UAE children this year, with many of them missing out on their usual family traditions and travel home to see grandparents. “We felt it was going to be such a different sort of festive period for children this year, so we wanted to do something special. We also introduced a photo booth where children can have a virtual photo with Santa, so that they can still have the usual Christmas experience, just in a safe, socially distanced way.”
During a year of such hardship, sacrifice and uncertainty for many, it’s clear that children are clutching on to the traditions of Christmas in order to anchor themselves, and are looking to the magic surrounding Santa for a sense of magic and hope for the future, says Emma Barron, a psychiatrist specializing in the mental health of children and adolescents, in an interview with the AP. She says that that landmark dates, including birthdays and holidays like Christmas, provide structure in childhood.
“Children are quite surprising in that they can adapt to many things,” Barron says.
“But rhythms, rituals and things like that are an integral part of children’s mental stability.”