November 29, 2015 – 5:22 am

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Nineteen years ago, rocker and producer Steve Albini read a letter to Santa Claus asking for help. Since then, every Christmas finds Albini doing his own charity run and it sure helps to spread some cheer and goodwill on the day.

Nineteen years ago, my wife Heather Whinna stopped by the post office on the way home. She found bins there full of letters addressed to Santa Claus, left out by the post office for people to read and answer. Curious, she read a few of the letters and couldn’t believe what she saw.

These weren’t impish requests for toys or a new bike; mostly, they were desperate pleas from heads of households asking for help. It was staggering. People let down by the remnants of a social safety net, without families or abandoned by their families, people suffering sickness, poverty and abuse. People so far out on a limb that they swallowed what pride they had left, took pen in hand and wrote down everything that had failed them, everything that had broken or been stolen, everything that had hurt them and made them feel fear and shame and worry.

They described anguish over their children’s needs, their hunger, their lack of appropriate clothing, school supplies and other basic needs.They described homes they could barely afford to stay in, wretched though they were. They described relationships wrecked by abuse, the legal system, disease and addiction. They addressed their problems to Santa Claus at the North Pole and sent them by mail into the vacuum of humanity that had left them so desperate.

It seemed impossible, yet there it was. She took one of the letters home and showed it to me. I couldn’t help but be moved when I read it, and the realization that there were hundreds - no, thousands - of these letters changed something in me.

Between us, we put together a parcel: some clothes, some needed items mentioned in the letter, some money. On Christmas morning, we drove to an address unannounced, found the letter writer and gave her the package. We did the same the next few years for a couple of families, whatever we could manage.

Heather works at the Second City theater in Chicago, and concurrent with her letter-reading, Andy Cobb, her colleague at the Second City, produced a marathon 24-hour improv show to raise money for a homeless shelter. Andy and Heather decided to combine their efforts and arranged a 24-hour show at the Second City in December, 2002 to raise money for the letters. That first year, the show allowed us to help even more families, turning Christmas morning into an all-day affair.

Meeting these people where they lived, seeing how they held their families together with nothing more than the frayed fibers of their willpower, made me want to do it again, do it more, find more of them…

Over time, The Second City That Never Sleeps’ 24 Hour show has become an annual tradition and an essential element of the culture of Second City. As it grew, it developed its own traditions. The show has musical and variety interludes, but the core improvising actors remain onstage and on their feet for the entire 24 hours. All the performers perform for no fee…

The post office no longer allows full access to letters addressed to Santa, though they still collect them… Since this policy change, we’ve had to use non-governmental aid agencies to help us find families in need…

We go on Christmas because people will be home… We go with a small group of friends, sometimes Jeff Tweedy, his wife Sue Miller and their boys Spencer and Sam, sometimes actors from the show, but always including Tim Midyett, Vickie Hunter and their daughter Lila.

Lila is 11 now and has spent every Christmas of her life in a van with us delivering gifts to people she’s never met before. It’s literally all she’s ever known as Christmas. We make a point of having someone who can speak Spanish conversationally to help convince people used to being afraid that we mean no harm when we ask them to open their doors. The last few years Fred Armisen, born in Venezuela, has come along in that role.

I haven’t had a conventional Christmas morning in almost 20 years. I haven’t missed it.

Note: This year’s 24 Hour: A Site for Sore Eyes ran from November 23-24. To make a donation online, please visit To bid on a day in the recording studio with and/or a dinner for up to four prepared by Steve Albini, visit the Onward House online auction at Charitybuzz. The above is an extract from an article posted at Click here for the full article.

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    By nobsartist on Dec 5, 2015

  3. never thought Albini was such smart and critical mind…!

    By mik on Dec 15, 2015

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