Every year, children across the world pour their hearts into letters to Santa Claus, wishing him luck on his journey, asking him to say hello to Rudolph, and requesting their Christmas wish lists. So where does this mail — often simply marked to “Santa” or “the Guy in the Big Red Suit” — wind up? The answer, most often, is the small town of Santa Claus, Indiana.
For more than 100 years, this tiny, festive city of approximately 2,500 people has assembled “Santa’s Elves,” a mighty team of volunteers who work tirelessly during the holiday season to answer each and every one of the more than 20,000 letters sent to the town’s post office, the only one in the world to hold the Santa Claus name.
“People here really care about this tradition and work so hard because they believe every child deserves the magic of getting a reply,” says Emily Thompson, director of the Santa Claus Museum & Village, which organizes the massive letter operation. “The letters are such a great example of the spirit of the town.”
Indeed, the people of Santa Claus — billed “America’s Christmas Hometown” — take decking the halls quite seriously. Lights are seen up year-round, a towering 22-foot-tall statue of Santa looks over the village, and even the streets have Christmas names, including Elf, Merry, Rudolph, and even Chestnuts by the Fire. Local stores also stay on theme, from Santa Claus Hardware to Holiday Foods and Santa’s Candy Castle (a 150-year-old institution full of rare candies and other holiday treats), and major attractions include the Land of Lights and the Holiday World theme park.
The most frequently asked question is, of course: how did the town end up with the name of Santa Claus? According to historical records, settlers originally used the name Santa Fee for the area in the early 1800s. But when the town applied for a post office in the mid-1800s, it was denied because that name already existed. Citizens were told they needed to choose something else. Exactly how they settled on Santa Claus remains a mystery, but there’s a town legend used to explain the conundrum.
So the story goes: it was a snowy Christmas Eve when citizens gathered in a log church to debate the future of their town’s name. During the meeting, the wind blew the doors of the church open, and the sound of sleigh bells could be heard in the distance. “Santa Claus!” the children cheered, and there he stood, inspiring a new name.
The town remained under the radar for years, but in 1914, Postmaster James Martin began noticing mail coming in addressed to Santa, taking it upon himself to to respond. The number of letters grew, so much so that in 1929, Robert Ripley featured Santa Claus in his “Believe It or Not” newspaper cartoon. Propelled to the national spotlight, letters began pouring in— and Santa’s Elves assembled.
Patricia Koch, 86, has helped answer letters for more than 70 years and is a champion for maintaining the storied tradition. “I am the daughter of Santa Claus,” she says with a slight chuckle, but she’s not kidding. Her father, Jim Yelling, served as the beloved town Santa from the 1930s to the 1980s. Koch and her family founded the museum to make sure the tradition lived on in an organized way.
Today, Koch has earned the title of “Chief Mail Elf,” and oversees all volunteers, who take turns working 12-hour days, every day in December to answer letters from nearly every state and every corner of the world, from Taiwan to Lithuania to Hong Kong. No matter where they’re from, the enthusiastic notes from children never cease to touch volunteers.
From apologizing for arguing with siblings to promising they’ve been good or, sometimes, expressing disappointment in some aspect of their life, elves always try to remain neutral in their replies while keeping the child’s faith up.
“As we work, we cry, and we laugh,” says Koch. “We hear stories from parents of children opening their letters and their faces lighting up. That’s what it’s all about: believing.”
Organizers encourage mail to be sent in to the elves’ official address — Santa Claus PO Box 1, Santa Claus, Indiana 47579 — by December 21 to guarantee a response. Somehow, though, the town winds up with many letters not addressed quite so precisely.
“We get some with no stamp, or a sticker instead of a stamp, others with no address at all,” Koch says. “The Post Office is so overloaded this time of year, but they do a great job getting us the letters. It shows the goodness of people, particularly around Christmastime.”
[All photos courtesy Santa Claus Museum & Village]