Receive our most important stories in your inbox every day.
Her name was Anna. She was 9 years old and lived in a small house on the Southside. She wanted something for her mom and siblings that they’d never had: Christmas presents.
“Dear Santa,” she began, “I know the only reason you’ve never come to our house is because we’ve never written.”
Anna put a stamp on the envelope and told her mother that Santa would make his first delivery to their house on Christmas morning.
Weeks later, a Trinity University freshman was rummaging through letters addressed to Santa at the downtown post office. With permission from the postmaster, 19-year-old Louise Locker read requests from hundreds of children, most asking for brand-name toys.
One letter made her stop. It was from a child who wanted a toy truck for her brother, a small gift for her sister, a Bible for her mother, and a Christmas tree for the family. It was signed, “Anna.”
Locker returned home with 13 letters from the post office. She told her widowed mother, Anne Locker, they needed to deliver 200 presents to 65 children. Anne had little money and worked a minimum-wage job. Christmas was in two days.
Mother and daughter went to work and fostered a holiday miracle, known today as the Elf Louise Christmas Project. Since that first Christmas in 1969, Elf Louise has delivered toys and gifts to more than 1 million children. In early December, she completed her annual radiothon, which raised more than $200,000. This Christmas, 19,100 children and teens received 62,000 presents.
“Ever since I was a little girl,” Louise said, “I always thought it would be so cool to bring magic to someone’s life.”
In her youth, Louise hid Valentine’s Day treats in the school kitchen to surprise cafeteria workers. On Easter, she painted eggs and hid them at neighbors’ houses. When she saw Johnny Carson reading letters from children on The Tonight Show, Louise was inspired to do something for Christmas. What if she could find a little girl who wanted a doll, deliver a few of her own to the child’s doorstop – and disappear?
The next morning, Dec. 23, 1969, Louise arrived at the post office and asked if she could read the letters to Santa. “No,” the postmaster said. “That would be tampering.”
“Well, where do you keep the letters?”
The postmaster led her to a room filled with boxes and boxes. “Maybe you could think of me as Santa,” Louise said, “because I want to be Santa to one little girl. Then maybe you could get around the rules.”
The postmaster relented. Louise did not find a letter from a girl who wanted a doll. But she found the one from Anna – “Please don’t get lost,” she pleaded – and others like it and showed them to the postmaster. “You can take these letters,” he said, visibly moved. “But don’t tell anyone.”
Louise and Anne scoured their house for items that matched gift requests and removed lights and ornaments from their tree. Louise took letters to the lunch counter at a coffee shop and gave strangers her address. Hours later, they came to her house with presents. Louise handed a letter to the manager of a Christmas tree lot. The man began to cry and gave her a beautiful scotch pine – for free.
The night before Christmas Eve, Louise and some friends drove to Anna’s house. With no street lights, they searched for the address in the dark. They set the tree with a box of lights and ornaments on a front porch and placed a sign on the door: “Santa will be here tomorrow.” At the sound of barking dogs, they fled only to realize later they’d left the tree at the wrong house.
On Christmas Eve, Louise took a letter to a costume shop and left with a free Santa suit. She and her friends finished wrapping and tagging presents at her house. “I don’t remember how we did it,” she said, “but we managed to get everything the kids asked for.”
That evening, Louise and her friends piled presents into two vehicles. At 3 a.m., Santa knocked on the last door. Anna’s mother answered with wide-eyed astonishment. “I can’t believe you’re here,” she said.
Anna and her siblings had waited for Santa until midnight. When he didn’t show, they went to bed, sobbing. Judy Tatom, one of Louise’s helpers that night, remembers the wonder that washed over the children’s faces after stumbling out of bed and finding Santa in their house.
“They were over the moon,” said Tatom, 68, a classmate of Louise’s at Trinity. “When we left, I was close to tears.”
Fred Cardenas also remembers Yuletide wonder. In 1971, his father had tuberculosis and his mother worked a part-time job. His grandmother, who suffered from mental illness, lived with the family in a place with cracks so large, neighbors could see inside when the lights came on at night. “It was an ugly house on the Westside,” Cardenas said.
At the age of 11, Cardenas understood the hardship and told his mother not to worry about presents. A nice Christmas dinner would suffice, he said. No turkey or ham. Just a simple Mexican meal: Enchiladas. Rice. Beans.
What the Cardenas family didn’t know was that Carmen, Fred’s 9-year-old sister, had written a letter to Santa at school. The teacher had given it to Louise. To the family’s amazement, Santa arrived on Christmas Eve.
“We were super excited,” said Fred, 56, a social worker with the Family Service Association.
The surprise made such an impact Fred reached out to Louise years later. “We would have been happy with a used ball or a colorful stick,” he said. “But we got a miniature pool table – about three feet by two feet. It was used and a ball was missing. But that didn’t matter. We played with it every day.”
Years later, the San Antonio Express-News published a front-page story about a young woman who surprised children with gifts. Wanting to protect his subject’s identity, the reporter called her “Elf Louise,” but included a phone number. An avalanche of calls followed.
A core of volunteers has enabled the Elf Louise Christmas Project to grow from serving 65 children to more than 20,000. Over the years, however, the project has faced considerable adversity: Shortages of money. A wrong number to a woman who hung up on callers. Louise’s battle with breast cancer. The death of Anne Locker three days before Christmas. Regardless, Louise and her volunteers have never failed to make a delivery.
No one has moved Louise quite like Anna, who, like most of those helped by the Christmas project, eventually disappeared into adulthood. But that was later.
The second year Louise heard from her, Anna asked for shoes and coats for her family. Then the letters stopped. Louise checked on the girl and learned that her house was destroyed in a fire. “I just sat there and wept,” Louise said.
A couple of years later, Louise came across another piece of mail. “Dear Santa,” it began. “Can you bring us a Christmas tree? Our house burned down and our family got separated, but now we are all back together.”
What are the chances, in a room with thousands of letters, Louise would find one from Anna? The elf who made magic will never forget the miracle that followed, the sound of a little girl’s voice, shouting through the branches of a tree, “I told you he would come!”