By Kevin Pang and Michael Pasternak
RISMEDIA, August 6, 2008-(MCT)-Many things can be said about this town of Santa Claus, Indiana, along the Indiana-Kentucky border, but there is one unequivocal truth: Santa exists here, even in the dead of summer.
The jolly fat man is everywhere. The town hotel is Santa’s Lodge, with St. Nick’s Restaurant inside, where Buffalo wings are called “Reindeer Paws.” Down the street on Holiday Boulevard is Silent Night Cafe, a short walk from Lake Rudolph Campground and Frosty Fun Center, which is around the corner from St. Nicholas Catholic Church. The post office, at 45 N. Kringle Place, receives thousands of children’s letters addressed to Santa Claus each Christmas.
Here in the lush, rolling green hills of southern Indiana, 3,585 miles from the geographic North Pole, a town’s economic engine is dependent on tourists who seek a Christmas experience year-round. The facade may have a whiff of gimmickry and/or clever marketing, but there are 2,200 people who call Santa Claus home year-round.
So, what is it like to live in a town where “Jingle Bells” plays in July? We took a trip down there to find out.
“It’s really neat, because you get away with it,” said Sylvia Seger, surrounded by an astonishing Christmas display of more than 500 Santa-related paraphernalia in her living room. “You wouldn’t get away with this anyplace else.”
On outward appearances, there is perhaps no happier, more joyful place than the Seger residence. In the living room, lights adorn trees, Santas come in many forms two and three-dimensional and everything has a red-and-green warmness to it. It risks tackiness, but it’s all charm.
Another way of looking at this: They don’t have to take any Christmas ornaments down, not even after Jan. 1.
“When I bring people into the room, I always tell them to think of this room as a museum,” said Seger, a retired 1st-grade teacher. “Because if you think of this as a living room, it is a little overwhelming.”
The Segers live in Christmas Lake Village. Their house is on the corner of Evergreen Drive and Melchior Drive (Melchior being one of the three wise men). The Village is a gated community built in 1969, spreading over 2,500 acres with three artificial lakes: Christmas Lake, Lake Noel and Lake Holly. During December, the gates open up for “The Festival of Lights,” an electric meter-spinning display of 800 decorated homes that lights up the southern Indiana sky.
And there are few families that also exhibit the Christmas spirit as colorfully as the Segers. This raises the question: Does it ever get old?
“Since I have Christmas all year long, perhaps Christmas isn’t quite as special on just that single day as it might be for other people,” Sylvia said. “But I like it that way. It’s not that it is worse or boring. I just get to enjoy it more.”
At the post office where mail addressed to 47579 is delivered, the madness begins at Thanksgiving.
This may be true of any postal facility in America, but in Santa Claus, Ind., upward of 10,000 letters addressed to Jolly St. Nick arrive at Marian Balbach’s office.
Balbach, the town’s postmaster, said she receives letters from as far away as Japan and Sweden.
“Some of them come from really needy families,” she said. “Some of them are really heart-wrenching, because they are asking for a job for mommy or a job for daddy.”
Her job then, is to make sure all the mail addressed to Santa gets answered. The letters are handed off to a group of volunteers called “Santa’s Elves” at the Santa Claus Museum, where one of four form letters is used.
One letter is intended for children who ask for lots of presents (“My elves are all scurrying around helping me find special gifts for all our friends … we will try to bring some of the presents you are wishing for.”) Another letter is aimed for adults (“Remember to share your gifts with others”). All return letters include a personalized handwritten P.S. note. Postage is covered by donations.
“The letters they send are general, and doesn’t promise anything,” Balbach said. “But it lets them know that Santa is thinking about them, and that they’ll see him at Christmas.”
Santa’s Lodge Shopkeeper
The Santa’s Lodge hotel is the other place in Santa Claus, Ind., where the decorations never come down.
On a recent summer’s morning, children in T-shirts and shorts sat on the sleigh in the hotel lobby, merrily singing “Jingle Bells.”
Sharon Alvey sat nearby, tending to the hotel gift shop. She said the T-shirts are big sellers here, as are tree ornaments bearing the town name. It’s the spirit of giving and the jolly fat man, she said, that drew a million people here last year.
Alvey moved here nine years ago, and her first thought was, “Oh my God, I’m going to be so sick of Christmas.” This has yet to happen, she said.
Life has taken some adjustment for Alvey, who lived in big cities in California and North Carolina. There is no Starbucks or McDonald’s here, and the nearest Wal-Mart is a 30-minute drive away.
“Once you get used to the country style, there’s just no need to get back to the city, to the congestion.”
The only problem Alvey runs into (and this happens to everyone in town) is telling bewildered outsiders where she lives.
“A lot of the time people don’t believe, especially when I’m making reservations over the phone,” Alvey said. “They say, ‘Oh yeah, right.’ I say, ‘No, seriously, I live at Ornament, just right off Sled Run.’ So I get a kick out of it.”
Zach Jochim did what any curious 4-year-old does around Christmastime: rifle through his parents’ closet for presents. He and his brother discovered the Super Nerf gun with yellow foam balls-the same present that arrived under the tree on Christmas morning.
“And that,” said Jochim, now 18, “was when we more or less knew that was the end of Santa Claus and who Santa really was.”
Jochim is a brawny dude, a strong safety and wide receiver for Heritage Hills High School’s football squad. In other words, not the kind into kiddie make-believe. Last year, the Patriots went to the state semifinals, and he figures the team to do as well this season.
When not at football practice, Jochim can be found at Frosty Fun Center, with mini-golf in the back and arcade games inside. It’s a summer job, and today he’s scooping ice cream for tourists on a bright, hot morning.
Before this job, he was working summers at Holiday World, the amusement and water park down the street and the town’s largest attraction. He would don the park’s ubiquitous blue polo and khaki shorts and man the wave pool, where he once found $125 in dollar bills floating.
It’s a very normal teenage upbringing, except it’s Christmas year round.
“You don’t think about it. You grow up here, and you don’t really recognize the name. It’s not a big deal. … You just go with the flow.”
The Town Historian, Ambassador
In the 1840s, the town now called Santa Claus was known as Santa Fe. When the mostly German townspeople applied for a post office to be built, they discovered another town in Indiana was already called Santa Fe. A new name would have to be chosen.
Here is where the legend gets fuzzy. One story has a group of townspeople sitting around a stove on Christmas Eve 1852. A burst of wind blew the door open, revealing a wintry landscape, the sound of sleigh bells in the distance. The children ran to the door yelling, “Santa Claus! Santa Claus!”
The U.S. Post Office Department made the name official May 21, 1856.
The town stayed beneath the national radar for the first half of the 20th century. It was only when Louis J. Koch opened Santa Claus Land in 1946, which staked its claim as the world’s first themed amusement park (nine years before Disneyland), did the town became a tourist destination.
If the town had a living embodiment today, besides Santa Claus himself, most residents would name Pat Koch, daughter-in-law of Louis J. Koch. She is the town ambassador, historian, museum curator, a slight blond woman with an inviting smile. With her late-husband, Bill, Koch named most of the Christmas-themed street names in Santa Claus.
Pat Koch is strolling the paths at Holiday World one afternoon, where carols chime from the loudspeakers on a loop.
Koch is the park’s director of values-she lends a hand and helps as needed. Her son, Will, is president and general manager of the theme park.
“Santa Claus lives forever in the hearts and minds of people,” she explained, “because Santa Claus is love and giving and all those wonderful things.”
Koch has a greater connection to Santa the person: Her father, Raymond Joseph Yellig, was the town’s first official Santa Claus. He looked the part and was rarely out of character. Even when Yellig (whom everyone called Jim) wasn’t in his Santa costume, he would don a little red hat.
“I called him Dad,” she said. “But whenever he was in his suit I always called him Santa.”
The Town President
The first time you meet Ron Smith, the town board president, you notice his long, bushy white beard and hearty laugh. You’d think, “No way,” but indeed he does resemble a certain town namesake. This is purely coincidental, but a convenient coincidence nevertheless.
Smith, a resident of Santa Claus since 1995, is a home builder by trade but supplements his income as a-what else?-Santa impersonator. He owns five jolly red suits, which he breaks out during Christmastime appearances at area elementary schools. He has starred in local television commercials as well.
One time while driving in nearby Evansville, Smith was pulled over by a traffic cop. The officer saw Smith and noticed his driver’s license and the town he comes from. “She said, ‘I can’t give Santa Claus a ticket!'” said Smith, whose license plate reads “ZZ SANTA.”
The Official Santa
Hard to believe, but only three official Santa Clauses (the man) have graced Santa Claus (the town) through the years. The current Santa was hired two summers ago after an extensive nationwide search.
The first Santa was the aforementioned Raymond Joseph Yellig, who played the jolly fat man until 1984. The second Santa, who legally changed his name to Santa Claus, retired for health reasons a couple of years ago. We find the current Santa, in his second summer at Holiday World. He is wearing a long-sleeved ruffled shirt with red suspenders and jingling sleigh bells in his left hand. Santa invites people to tug on his beard. It is real.
“It’s 192 days left until Christmas!” Santa proclaims with a belly laugh.
Does Santa live in the area?
“The reindeers take Santa back to the North Pole every night! Ho ho ho!”
Santa is asked about how he feels being in a town that celebrates Christmas year round.
“I truly believe that Christmas needs to be in your heart all year long. That reminds you to be good boys and good girls. Ho ho ho!”
This guy will not break character.
Here’s the strange thing: Everyone in town seems to know exactly who the man playing Santa is, but they fiercely protect his identity. As if it’s a state secret.
“We’re here with families with children,” said Paula Werne, spokeswoman for Holiday World. “If we ever misspeak and cause a child not to believe, we’d fail in our mission.”
Perhaps Kevin Klosowski, owner of Santa’s Candy Castle, would help solve this mystery. “As adults we’re tempted to pull that curtain back and see the wizard. Here, we’re not.”
Then came a game-changing discovery. In the employee’s parking lot, the spot closest to the entrance was reserved for one “Santa Claus.” Turns out, when not riding his sleigh, Santa drives a white Chevy Impala.
A simple check of his Indiana license plate revealed who Santa really is … which we would never reveal.
We wouldn’t want to end up on his Naughty List.
© 2008, Chicago Tribune.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.