Holiday book features Indiana town Santa Claus

SANTA CLAUS, Ind. (AP) — “Dear Santa” letters run the gamut.

“My dad was a soldier in the World War,” says one, written in 1939. “He got shot when he was a deputy sheriff by gangsters after he come home. I have a step dad but he is so mean he never buys me anything. Some day I will be a man and I want to be brave. I like books better than anything and I like boxing gloves & foot balls.”

“I’m not sure if I was a good girl this year,” says one from 1966. “But if I get presents for Chrismas I promise to be a good girl next year.”

“Dear Santa” — this one from the 2010s — “We moved & we don’t have a chimney any more. Please come through the dryer vent.”

These are excerpts from among the million or so letters from all over the world addressed to Santa Claus that in the past 100 years have landed at the post office in a small southwestern Indiana town in Spencer County. The town? Santa Claus. It’s a place that sounds like some Christmas tale. But the town is real, with a history that is long, genuine and a bit peculiar.

Some 250 of the letters are compiled into a new, 204-page coffee table book published by Indiana University Press. “Letters to Santa Claus” is selling briskly. In less than two months nearly half of the 15,000 press run has been snapped up, said IU Press’ Mandy Hussey.

The book is a collaboration between IU and Santa Claus — the town, population 2,300, not the jolly gift-giver. Santa Claus has built itself into a Yule-themed tourist destination and has long been the repository for Santa letters. The letters not only get read, they get a response, too, from one of hundreds of townsfolk who volunteer as “elves.” The elves choose from among four form letters, but they also add some personal touches, said Pat Koch, who has been answering Santa letters since the 1940s and at 84 still coordinates the broad effort.

Koch inherited the mantle from her father, Raymond Joseph Yellig, who for years responded to Santa letters in his spare time. His day job was playing Santa at the local amusement park, Santa Claus Land, year-round.

Yellig was painstaking in his bid for authenticity. He labored to keep his weight around 200 pounds. “He was not obese, but just very round, just the way Santa should be,” his daughter recalled. And those times he didn’t have a real beard (his wife never could get used to it) he made sure his fake one was of the highest quality and clean.

Yellig answered tens of thousands of letters, always with red ink, sometimes in cursive, mostly with the help of a copying machine. These days Koch and her hundreds of volunteers make it a group activity and have it down to a science. Various organizations, like the local garden club and the American Legion post, send members for one- or two-hour elf shifts. All the work is done in the back room of the town’s museum, which has in its collection the digitized voice of the venerable Yellig himself.

Koch figures they answer more than 10,000 letters a year, an amount that would equate to more than four letters for every man, woman and child in the town. Most of the letters, obviously, are requests for gifts, and the townsfolk obviously can’t make those wishes come true. They dance around it.

“We tell our elves to never promise anything,” Koch said, “but we let them know their request has been heard, and we personalize it. Like if they mention they play soccer, we’ll write ‘keep up the good work in soccer.'”

The letters, while not promising specific items, do give reason for optimism. “My reindeer are ready and will be at your house on time,” says one.

They also contain advice: “Take care of your toys, share them with your playmates.” ”Remember to listen to others, be respectful.” ”Eat well.”

The town, which calls itself “America’s Christmas Hometown,” promotes itself with the focused zeal of a well-run shopping mall heading into Black Friday. But this Santa Claus is not fiction. It has a grocery store, a gas station, an Arby’s, a church that dates to 1880 and an unusual history. The whole Christmas theme was not, originally, a marketing tool. It was an accident.

Santa Claus was founded in 1850 as Santa Fe, or Santa Fee, said Emily Weisner Thompson, director of the Santa Claus Museum and Village. (Thompson has a master’s degree in public history from American University and previously worked for the National Park Service at the boyhood home, now a historical site, of a different sort of bearded icon: the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Thompson got to Santa Claus because her husband, Kendell Thompson, was hired as superintendent of the nearby boyhood home and historical site of yet another bearded icon: General Lee’s arch foe, Abraham Lincoln.)

In 1855 the people of Santa Fe petitioned the federal government for a post office, but the government said no because there already was a Santa Fe, Indiana, in Miami County. The Battle of Santa Fe occurred in 1846, during the Mexican-American War, which may explain the popularity of the name Santa Fe.

If the Spencer County town’s residents wanted a post office, they would have to change the town’s name. The legend goes like this: In the winter of 1855, as townsfolk gathered in a meeting hall to debate the matter, a gust of wind blew open the door. Just then sleigh bells jingled, and a child blurted out: “It’s Santa Claus.” And that was that.

The town soon got its post office, and much later, around 1914, the U.S. Postal Service began forwarding letters from children addressed to “Santa Claus” to the post office in Santa Claus. And the postmaster there, the kindly James Martin, began answering the letters. Yellig stepped in to help him in the 1930s because the trickle of letters became a deluge after the Santa letters were publicized in a nationally syndicated newspaper feature called “Ripley’s Believe it or Not,” a sort of news-of-the-weird of its day.

The town saw opportunity and in 1935 doubled down on Christmas by erecting a giant, 40-ton statue of Santa along with a turreted tourist attraction called Santa’s Candy Castle. The next year came Toy Village, and the coming years brought Lake Rudolph Campground and RV Resort, Christmas Lake Golf Course, restaurants named Frosty’s or St. Nick’s. Santa Claus Land, where Yellig worked, opened in 1946. Now renamed Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari, the amusement park is the county’s chief economic engine. It was started and is still owned by the Koch family, Yellig’s daughter’s in-laws (The boss’ son married Santa’s daughter).

Naming a child-centric tourist town after St. Nick might seem like a slam dunk, almost like cheating, but success is not guaranteed. Santa Claus, Arizona, founded in 1937, is deserted. Santa Claus, Georgia, incorporated in 1941 (there’s actually an intersection of Dasher and Dancer streets), has lost 30 percent of its population since 2000 and is down to 167 people.

Santa Claus, Indiana, meanwhile, thrives with tourists and traditions.

Pat Koch, in her seventh decade fielding “Dear Santa” letters, says children haven’t changed. “They of course ask for different things. It’s mostly electronics these days,” she said. “And I think they expect more than they did in the ’30s. But it’s the same. They say, ‘I’ve tried to be good and help Mommy,’ and, ‘I’ll leave you cookies and milk and something for the reindeer.'”

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