Christmas spirit

Poor girl was eternally kindhearted, 108-year-old letter to Santa shows

A letter written to Santa Klaus in 1907 by Mary McGann hangs in the apartment of Pete Mattaliano, who discovered it in his fireplace, in New York, Dec. 9, 2015. (Yana Paskova/The New York Times)

Fifteen years ago, New York City man Peter Mattaliano decided to renovate the fireplace in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment. He had enlisted his brother, a construction worker, to help with the task of demolition — the fireplace had been sealed behind bricks for decades. Amid the rubble from the demolition, Mattaliano’s brother made an unbelievable find: two letters addressed to Santa Claus written a century earlier that were partially charred and covered in soot. The letters were written in 1905 and 1907, by Alfred and Mary McGann, the young children of Irish immigrants. Mattaliano, now 66, considers them his most treasured possession and a symbol of the immigrant’s struggle in early 20th century New York.

The 1907 letter, written by Mary, is especially revealing. In it, Mary asks Santa Claus to bring her brother a wagon for Christmas, suggesting that her family can’t afford to buy one. She doesn’t specify a gift request for herself, but asks Santa to remember the poor. Mattaliano was deeply moved by the girl’s words, which he says suggests she was from a poor family, but didn’t even realize so. Mattaliano framed the letters and displays them year-round above the mantle over the now-renovated fireplace where the missives were discovered. Every year since making the find, he pays tribute to Mary and Alfred, and he bought them Christmas gifts, “even if it was 100 years too late,” which sit on the mantle beneath the letters. The unmistakable Christmas spirit that lives on through those letters lingered with Mattaliano, and inspired him, with the help of a reporter and researcher from The New York Times, to go on an emotional search to learn more about what became of little Mary and Alfred, and their mother, Esther, whom he learned had become a single mother by the time those two letters were written. What Mattaliano found out about them will simultaneously break and warm your heart this holiday season — a true Christmas story for the ages.

Read the full story at The New York Times.

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