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Grand Forks man plays Santa’s helper to the max

Nate Bertram responds to hundreds of letters in his ‘Santa on Darwin’ mailbox, plans to deliver gifts to the children most in need

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Nate Bertram clears snow from a sign in his front yard Christmas display Friday, Dec. 16, 2022 on Darwin Drive in Grand Forks.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS — It may be hard to say who’s more excited about the letters in the “Santa on Darwin” mailbox, the kids who drop them off or St. Nick’s helper who answers them.

This is the third Christmas that Nate Bertram has placed a big red mailbox in the middle of an over-the-top holiday light display in his yard on Darwin Drive. The display features more than 60,000 lights — one for each Grand Forks resident, he said.

This year, next to the mailbox, he’s added a sign that reads, “Santa on Darwin — please leave a return address for a reply.”

“That’s been well received,” he said, “and more and more people are writing letters.”

In 2020, the mailbox collected 13 letters. Last year, nearly 100 were deposited, he said. This year, he’s received more than 170, and expects to end up with about 250 to 300.

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Local elementary school teachers, who heard about the mailbox, have brought letters written by their students.

“It’s exciting,” Bertram said. “And I don’t just write two sentences back to them; it’s a full page.” In the evenings, after his wife and daughter have gone to bed, “I write ‘til I’m falling asleep in my chair.”

On average, he spends a couple hours nightly writing letters, using a professional-style letterhead (“From the desk of Santa Claus”), with Santa Claus’ signature, and the return address, Kris Kringle, 123 Santa Claus Lane, North Pole.

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The centerpiece of Nate Bertram's Christmas display is a Santa mailbox where children can drop off letters to Santa Claus.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Touching letters

Some letters he’s received include predictable requests, but others “ripped at your heart,” Bertram said.

A child wrote recently, “Instead of a toy this year, do you think you could get me a warm jacket?” As soon as he saw it, before writing a letter in response, he ordered the jacket.

“I have other ones that’ll just ask for a loaf of bread, or yarn, or ‘I would like a new sweater because mine’s not warm enough,’ ” Bertram said. “Those jump out at me.”

One letter in particular made him think “for quite a while,” he recalled. “The child didn’t ask for any gifts. (The letter read) ‘I want my mom to be happy and my sister to be happier.’ ”

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After considering his response, he wrote, “Make sure, every time you wake up every morning, you hug your mom and sister and give them a kiss. That will start their day with a smile and if you do that for the rest of your life that will keep a smile on your mom’s face.”

Bertram is equally careful with responses to children who ask for specific gifts. He’ll write something like, “I’ll talk to the elves and see what we can do for you, but know you’re getting something special this year,” he said.

He delights in seeing photos parents post online that capture their child’s excited reaction upon receiving the letters from Santa, he said. “Just to see the smile on their faces — it’s pretty priceless.”

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Ryleigh Walp, 6, displays a hand-written letter she received from Santa Claus
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Letters to Santa

Bertram is carrying on a family tradition of creating a massive light display to spread holiday cheer, he said. After he and wife purchased their first home in Grand Forks, he came up with the idea of installing a mailbox “where kids could actually put their letters,” he said.

He searched high and low for a mailbox without any luck, he said. “Nothing was really to my expectation — it wasn’t big enough, it wasn’t fancy enough,” he said.

In late 2020, a visit to Lowe’s rendered a solution.

“When I walked in, this mailbox was staring me in the eye. And I saw it — and I didn’t even ask for anyone — I just walked up to it, I saw the price on it, and I unplugged it from the display, and I just carried it to the counter.”

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From that Christmas on, the mailbox has been a fixture in his extraordinary outdoor light display.

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Charles Bengtson, 5, poses at the mailbox at the Bertram home, where he placed his letter to Santa Claus.
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Delivering for Santa

Not only does Bertram write letters, he’s delivered, anonymously, all kinds of gifts to children in need at their homes — and he will again this week.

On Christmas Eve, Bertram plans to drop off gifts at more than 50 homes, he said. “The gift number is probably over 120. I’m going to load my car up probably three separate times. … It’s gone to a whole new level.”

In his effort to extend the spirit of Christmas, Bertram’s project was also featured in a TV news broadcast a few weeks ago. A couple in Lake Park, Minnesota, were so moved by his project, they wanted to participate.

Tim and Beth Hermanson asked what the kids wanted, went shopping, and donated “just piles of presents” for him to pass along to children, he said.

They went as far as Minneapolis and Iowa to shop for the gifts, Bertram said, who has also received large monetary donations from others who saw his story on the news.

“The response from (the TV segment) has been overwhelming,” he said.

The contributions he’s received will help him to brighten children’s holiday and maybe instill a sense of wonder about Santa Claus.

Bertram receives some letters to Santa that say, “I don’t know if I believe in you,” he said. “But if, all of a sudden, their parents get something at the door and they didn’t expect it and the kids didn’t expect it, and all of a sudden there’s the belief there — and maybe it’s just for another year or two.”

Bertram’s mission is “to get the Christmas spirit into people (and) bring joy to more children, because I knew there were some that weren’t as fortunate as others.”

By sending letters from Santa to kids and delivering gifts to their homes, he’s hoping the family members “will wake up with this bright spot to their day which is otherwise quite gloomy. ...

“The thing is, I’ll never really see the faces of what it’s going to be like when they’re opening this, because I want that to be the parents’ deal,” he said. “I want to bring joy to the parents as well during this moment, because some can’t afford to put that smile on their children’s face; they’re just trying to go meal to meal.

“And if I can do that with the people that have helped donate, that’s all worthwhile.”

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Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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