On the night before Christmas back in 1907, a 10-year-old girl in a New York City apartment wrote a letter to Santa. Following an Irish tradition, she sent it up the chimney.
A man found that letter nearly 17 years ago when he was renovating his fireplace. Ever since, he’s been working to learn more about the little girl. His long journey came to a satisfying conclusion just last week, reports CBS News correspondent Dana Jacobson.
“As I’m bringing bricks out, I find this little blue envelope written to Santa Claus in Reindeer Land,” Peter Mattaliano recalled. “And I open it up. And here’s this letter from – from Mary.”
“And you say, ‘Mary,’ like you know her. But at the time…” Jacobson said.
“I know,” Mattaliano said. “It’s funny.”
Mattaliano did not know anything about 10-year-old Mary McGann when he discovered her partially charred letter in his fireplace. He was struck by the last line of Mary’s note.
“My little brother would like a wagon that I know you cannot afford,” she wrote.
“She doesn’t ask for anything for herself and then says, ‘Please, do not forget the poor.’ I mean, you know, the spirit of Christmas, that generosity and maturity – she’s 10,” Mattaliano said.
So he set out to find Mary. The census records he dug up only told part of the story. That’s when the New York Times got involved.
“They found where she was buried in four days. Mary McGann married George McGahan, OK?” Mattaliano said, laughing. “We get to the stone. And there it is, George McGahan. But Mary’s not on the stone.”
There was a space, but no name. Mary, who never had children and worked as a stenographer, died in 1979 at age 82.
“A little girl who had that kind of emotional depth and generosity, has to be acknowledged,” Mattaliano said. “Even if there’ll be nobody to go visit, she has to be acknowledged.”
Mattaliano couldn’t add Mary’s name because he is not related; but someone else could.
“Last January, an article appeared in our local newspaper here in Ireland,” Brian Dempsey recalled.
Dempsey is a physics teacher who lives outside of Dublin. He recognized his mother’s maiden name and discovered he’s a distant cousin of Mary’s.
“It clicked,” Dempsey said “I know that. Amazing.”
As Mary’s relative, Brian passed the right to add her name to Mattaliano in the form of a notarized letter.
“I mean, look at it – it was obviously meant to be here,” Mattaliano said, standing beside her grave.
Thirty-seven years after her death, Mary McGann’s name was engraved on her tombstone.
“You got Mary’s name on that tombstone. What else has she given you?” Jacobson asked.
“Anytime things seem to be going south I still take a look at the letter. And I say, ‘All right. OK,’” Mattaliano said.
“It’s more than the Christmas spirit,” Jacobson said.
“It’s the Christmas spirit personified,” Mattaliano said.