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If you misplace your Christmas spirit this holiday season, you need look no further than Santa Claus; the town, rather than the gentlemen in the red suit. Of course, the white-bearded one has plenty of extra spirit to go around but he's busy supervising the elves and training the rookie reindeer. Tucked away in Southern Indiana, near where Abe Lincoln spent his youth, lies a town called Santa Claus.
Lest you think this is a recent publicity stunt or an effort to cash in on tourist dollars, you should know the little burg has had the name Santa Claus since the 1850's. How did it come to pass? About 1852 a community calling itself Santa Fe applied to obtain a post office. However, their request was denied, since the state of Indiana already had a city going by the name Santa Fe.
Later that year at a town meeting and Christmas Eve program, the topic of a name change was again being discussed when the children heard sleigh bells approaching. Someone remarked they should name the town Santa Claus. Filled with goodwill toward men and holiday spirit, everyone agreed. They applied again and in 1856, the town became official, with its very own post office housed in a log cabin.
Naming the streets and landmarks in the vicinity proved to be especially easy. Residents live on streets such as, Candy Cane Lane, Arctic Circle, Tinsel Drive and Silver Bell Terrace.
Chances are there will never be another town called Santa Claus, since the U.S. Government has said it won't award another post office under that famous name and a town can't be much more than a wide spot in the road without one. As far as anyone can tell, this is the one and only Santa Claus in the nation.
Like many of us who struggle to find and keep our Christmas cheer year upon year, the community of Santa Claus has struggled to survive. Lying way off the beaten path, there wasn't much to attract new residents. In fact, the 1970 census showed a population of only 73 people and at one time they dipped below 40 citizens.
Santa Claus, like other cities before it, could have easily fallen off the face of the map, but for some reason it didn't. The town refused to give up even when the odds were grim. It still had an important role to play and therein lies a lesson. When your siblings are once again arguing over where to hold Christmas and the lines at the toy store are twenty deep, remember Santa Claus, the town and persevere.
Though still small by any standard, in the 1980's the population of Santa Claus hovered between 500-600 and today it's close to 900 folks, give or take a few elves.
The community has not been completely without fanfare, since the time it was featured in Ripley's Believe it or Not newspaper column in the 1920's. Ripley mentioned he'd sent the Santa Claus post office a 3-foot by 5-foot wooden postcard to get the unique postmark. After reading the column, people began to follow his example, sending cards and letters. That bit of notoriety altered the course for Santa Claus, Indiana.
When the cold months arrive Santa Claus, rekindles its yearly love affair with the holiday season. The mail, literally stacked to the ceiling, starts coming in early November and continues through Christmas.
The post office in Santa Claus does two significant things. The first batch of mail falls into the category of re-mailing. Of the vast quantities of cards and letters that will go through Santa Claus, most fall into this category.
Sandra Collignon, Postmistress says, "People bring their addressed and prepared mail to the office to get the commemorative postmark, driving from other states and regions of Indiana. Some come year after year. They want their kids and grandkids to get the letters from Santa Claus, at least according to the postmark. Others mail us their letters and packages in advance and we put them through here. I expect we'll touch close to half a million pieces this
Christmas season."
According to Postmistress Sandy, organizations such as the American Legion have their own annual programs set up to prepare holiday letters for kids. Already sealed and addressed to the children, the letters get shipped on to the Santa Claus post office for the actual posting. That way, when the missives reach their final destination, the kids have not only letters written to them by the jolly gentlemen, but a postmark showing exactly where the letter came from...proof positive, there is a Santa!
She continues, "In past years we've hired up to sixteen helpers in the office at Christmas, back when everything was hand-sorted. Even with the help, the hours were long. Now we can get along with less. Every December we're visited by TV film crews, reporters and curious tourists who want to see what we do. A few years ago a group came all the way from Scotland to do a video."
The second category of mail handled at the Santa Claus station comes from children, writing directly to Santa. These letters, provided they have a return address, are answered by volunteers from the area.
Postal employees throughout the country have been instructed to send all mail addressed to Santa Claus (the man) on to Santa Claus (the town). Thus envelopes may be addressed to the Santa at the North Pole, but often end
up in Southern Indiana. The letters originate not only from the U.S., but from around the world. A portion of these letters will find their way to North Pole, Alaska.
Though the use of automation has cut down on some mail getting patched through, a number of caring postal workers take the time to add the Santa Claus zip code, (47579) so the children's letters can make it through the system. Displaying another noteworthy sign of yuletide spirit from the postal service, a number of the letters arrive in Southern Indiana without any postage at all.
Mary Ann Long has been helping answer children's letters since 1974, when she organized a non-profit group called Santa's Elves. "We've been extremely fortunate to get donations each year to cover the expense of answering the kid's letters. Holiday World (a nearby theme park) donates all the printing of the envelopes and letters. Postage is our biggest expense. The local garden club also makes a generous donation, along with Santa Claus businesses and organizations," she adds.
Mary Ann continues, "When the letters start arriving I get on the phone and round up the volunteers. We are small but we always find a way to get the job done"
Postmistress Sandy estimates between 7000-8000 children's letters will be answered this year, in addition to the thousands of others that get posted through the Santa Claus station.
Without the volunteers in Santa Claus, thousands of children wouldn't get their special letter from Santa and thousands of others would not have that thrill of seeing the postmark direct from the big guy himself. Not earth shattering perhaps, but they didn't set out to conquer the world, just make it a happier place for kids.
Santa Claus may be a tiny place, but it has a greater purpose. The residents know a secret we can all share...you don't have be powerful or rich or have great numbers of people to make a difference. You just have to care.