For the sake of Christmas magic, recall for a moment all those letters you wrote to Santa as a kid. They were precious, to be sure, filled with endearing promises of good behavior and wishes for presents. But whatever happened to them? Maybe Mom and Dad penned a response in Santa’s place, only to be exposed later on when Santa’s handwriting started looking a little too familiar. Or perhaps the letters really did end up at the North Pole. But there’s a good chance if you wrote “Santa Claus” on the envelope and stuck the letter in the mail, it made its way down to a little town by the name of Santa Claus, Indiana.
Originally called Santa Fee, the town changed its name in 1856 to qualify for a post office. (There was already a Santa Fe, Indiana, and the names were too close.)
“The legend goes that they were discussing what the name should be on Christmas Eve, and a child heard a jingle bell outside,” says Nell Hedge, director of the Santa Claus Museum. “The doors blew open and the little child said ‘Santa Claus!’ And it was settled.”
An hour west of Louisville, Kentucky, this town is abuzz through the summer months with visitors to Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari amusement/water park, with Christmas, Halloween, Fourth of July and other themed rides. But this time of year keeps some residents busy for an entirely different reason: The town is also home to the only Santa Claus post office in the world, meaning that thousands of letters addressed to Father Christmas end up here. And in 1914, Santa started writing back.
Originally, the postmasters took charge of responding to letters, but eventually one man came to lead the effort, as well as personify Santa Claus himself: Raymond Joseph Yellig, more famously known as Santa Jim. It could be said that Jim “played” Santa, but to those that knew him, he truly was the man in red.
Outfitted in the classic fur-trimmed suit and a real white beard, he was the resident Santa at Holiday World (back before the park changed its name from Santa Claus Land) for 38 years, holding the record for the most number of children to ever visit a Santa in person and earning him a spot in the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame. Solidly committing to the role, Santa Jim started answering letters in the 1930s after returning home from WWI, enlisting the help of local organizations as well as the American Legion.
Today the effort operates as the nonprofit Santa’s Elves and Museum, Inc. and is overseen by “Chief Elf” Pat Koch, the daughter of the famed Santa Jim, who discovered her dad was Santa in a different way than most kids.
“For a long time, I didn’t know,” Koch says. “He came to our school and I said, ‘That’s Dad.’ ”
Once the jig was up, Koch was initiated into elf-dom. “I remember very well when I was 11 or 12 having my dad bring home letters and helping,” she says.
Now, she’s the one carrying on the tradition.
The elves guarantee that Santa will respond to all letters that are sent by Dec. 19, which means that Koch and her task force of volunteer elves spend the month cranking out letters — always written in red ink — from sunup to sundown. The back room of the town’s original 1856 post office, hidden behind a frosted glass window with the sign “Elves Working,” is filled to the brim with letters from all over the world. In 2017, the elves sent out a record 24,000 letters.
Most kids grow up and stop believing in Santa — or worse, become Scrooges — but not Koch. She still, most definitely believes in Santa. “The spirit of Santa Claus is alive forever and ever and ever,” she says, “and we try to keep it alive.”
Whether you fancy a pit stop on any southern-bound road trips this holiday season or just like to get extra festive, there’s no better place than the town named for Santa Claus himself. Here are a few spots to check out while you’re in there:
Santa Claus Christmas Store
Filled with all the joy, wonder and glitter of the holiday season, this is the place for the people who put their tree up before Thanksgiving and leave the Christmas lights on until February. Shop ornaments, nutcrackers, lights, tree toppers and whatever else your heart desires here, ’cause they’ve got it all. While you’re at it, snag a sugar cookie and a photo op with Santa. 33 N. Kringle Place, santaclauschristmasstore.com.
Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari
Open May through October, this park sees over 1 million visitors annually and boasts 125 acres of Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas-themed fun. Holiday World is home to three wooden roller coasters, not unlike those at Cincinnati’s own Kings Island, and to be found at Splashin’ Safari are the world’s two longest water coasters. Visitors can also take the opportunity to drink their weight in soda, since soft drinks (as well as parking and sunscreen) are free here. 452 E. Christmas Blvd., holidayworld.com.
Santa Claus’ Candy Castle
In the true Christmas spirit of all big city businessmen hoping to make a buck off Saint Nick’s good name, the Chicago-based Curtiss Candy Company built the Candy Castle in 1935, thus creating America’s very first themed attraction and what one can only assume was the Great Depression-era equivalent of Times Square’s flashy M&M World store. Inside this storybook-style castle, you’ll find wall-to-wall confectionery, the Santa Claus Hall of Fame (which includes the likes of Mickey Rooney, who voiced Santa in five classic Christmas films; James Edgar, the first department store Santa; and of course, Santa Jim) and a “Survivors Wall” for the Avalanche Challenge, a challenge to down a gargantuan 64-ounce frozen hot chocolate made with an entire pound of hot chocolate mix. 15499 State Route 245, santascandycastle.com.
Santa Claus Museum and Village
Santa is quite literally the first person you’ll see here — or, rather, a likeness of him. High on a hill, watching over this tiny village, is a 22-foot tall, 40-ton statue of the big guy himself, erected in 1935 and complete with an overflowing sack of toys. In Santa’s shadow lie the town’s original post office, the white-steepled 1880 German Evangelical St. Paul’s Church and the Santa Claus Museum itself, which features a collection of letters written to Santa dating back to the 1930s. The letters include adorable requests like, “Dear Santa, I am not eating my boogers anymore so you can bring me some toys please.” And, more formally, “Dear Sir: With regard to my coming Christmas present, it is respectfully requested that for my efforts in 1969 I receive $2,000,000 cold cash.” 69 State Route 245, santaclausmuseum.org.
For more information about Santa Claus, Indiana and all it has to offer through the holidays and year-round, visit santaclausind.org.