JFK's Santa letter: Tells girl North Pole safe from nuclear bombs

In 1961, eight-year-old Michelle Rochon made headlines across the U.S. when she wrote to President John F. Kennedy, worried about the well-being of Santa Claus after Russian nuclear tests over the North Pole. Weeks later, the president wrote her back.

'Please stop the Russians from bombing the North Pole because they will kill Santa'

In this Nov. 9, 1960 photo, Caroline Kennedy gets a piggy-back ride from her father, Sen. John F. Kennedy, in Hyannis Port, Mass. (The Associated Press)

Virginia O' Hanlon became a holiday legend when she questioned the existence of Santa Claus in a letter to the editor of a New York City newspaper, who famously replied, "Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." But she wasn't the only young girl to gain notoriety for a letter about St. Nick.

In 1961 at the height of the Cold War, eight-year-old Michelle Rochon was a firm believer in Santa, but worried about his well-being. During dinner, the young Marine City, Mich., resident had overheard her parents talking about the Russians testing bombs at the North Pole. 

"I knew nuclear bombs were bad. And if they were testing them at the North Pole, what was Santa going to do?" said Michelle Roncon Phillips, from her home in Michigan, in a phone interview with CBC News.

"I remember telling mom, 'I'm going to write President Kennedy.' I just automatically thought I have to write him and maybe he can do something about it."

So Michelle got a pencil, placed a piece of paper on a footstool in the living room, and wrote out a simple letter:

Dear Mr. Kennedy,

Please stop the Russians from bombing the North Pole because they will kill Santa Claus. 

I am 8 years old. I am in the third grade at Holy Cross School.

Yours truly,

Michelle Rochon.

Her mom gave her an envelope, which she addressed simply "President Kennedy, Washington, D.C." Michelle walked to the end of her block, slipped the letter into the local mailbox, and, being eight, with other priorities on her mind, soon forgot about it.

But about a week later Michelle's mom woke her up early in the morning.

"She said 'Remember that letter you wrote to President Kennedy?' And I said 'yeah' and  she said, 'Somebody wants to talk to you on the phone.' Well, immediately I thought it was President Kennedy and I got scared."

It wasn't the president, but it was a local radio station who wanted to interview Michelle. The White House had received her letter and had made the contents public, including a picture of the president reading it. The wire service picked it up and Michelle's letter became nationwide news.

When Michelle got to school that day, she was greeted by a number of newspaper reporters. And soon, letters started pouring in to Michelle from other children all around the world. She was sent gifts, and adults wrote to her as well, some saying they were Santa Claus, telling her not to worry and that Santa was going to be fine. 

But she also received some hate mail that suggested Michelle shouldn't get her hopes up.

"There was one in there that said President Kennedy can't save the world. Nobody can be saved from nuclear bombs. They had a map of the whole world where nuclear bombs were planted. Just real ugly stuff," said Michelle, adding that her parents kept those letters from their daughter.

But days later, when the news was quieting down, Michelle received a special letter in her mailbox. This one was written on White House stationery. It read:

Dear Michelle,

I was glad to get your letter about trying to stop the Russians from bombing the North Pole and risking the life of Santa Claus.

I share your concern about the atmospheric testing of the Soviet Union, not only for the North Pole but for countries throughout the world; not only for Santa Claus but for people throughout the world.

However, you must not worry about Santa Claus. I talked with him yesterday and he  is fine. He will be making his rounds again this Christmas.


John Kennedy

Overjoyed about receiving a letter from the president (but a little perplexed over the reference to "atmospheric testing"), Michelle said her fears had been allayed.

"All I  understood was that he talked to Santa Claus and he was fine and he'd be coming around this Christmas. President Kennedy said so. So everything was good."

When word got out that the president had written Michelle, she was again in the headlines, and her mother framed the letter and hung it on the wall. 

Although Michelle never met the president, she did get to meet his daughter, Caroline Kennedy. In 2007, Good Morning America was interviewing Kennedy about her book A Family Christmas, which included Michelle's letter, and arranged for the two to meet.

She keeps a scrapbook of the articles that appeared during that time, but the letter from Kennedy is stored in a safety deposit box.

Michelle, who now has two grown sons of her own, said that most Christmases she thinks about the letter.

"I talk about it once in a while. My 15 minutes of fame."

Michelle said she was devastated over the news of the president's death and that she had felt like she knew him personally.

"I mean it was silly, but as a little child you just felt like, yeah, you know, he was my friend."


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