In Santa Claus, Ind., (pop. 2,041) a sure sign of Christmas is when Pat Koch leaves the post office carrying boxes piled high with “Dear Santa” letters from around the world.
The letters are addressed to Santa Claus (the chubby guy in red) and end up in Santa Claus (the town) because, well, what better place for the U.S. Postal Service to forward correspondence bearing those two words? All in all, about 10,000 letters to Santa arrive in Santa Claus each year beginning shortly after Thanksgiving.
That’s when volunteers of Santa’s Elves Inc., a nonprofit organization formed in 1974, get busy. “We open, read, and try to answer every letter that comes in,” says Koch, the guiding force behind the group.
“We get letters addressed to The North Pole or with no zip code or state, or sometimes children just draw a stamp on them, and they still are forwarded to us.”
The lifelong Santa Claus resident admits that the history of her hometown—where streets all have Christmas-related names and a 22-foot-tall statue of jolly old St. Nick greets visitors—is unique.
The southern Indiana hamlet was originally named Santa Fe. Then, in 1859, officials applied for a post office only to learn another town in their state had the same name. At a meeting, reportedly held on Christmas Eve, the suggestion to change Santa Fe to Santa Claus found favor.
Making sure letters addressed to the town’s namesake are answered is a long-standing community tradition. About 30 dedicated individuals help each year, and often members of several local clubs and service groups also pitch in. Donations take care of postage costs, and Koch’s family business, nearby Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari theme park, contributes Santa’s stationery.
“It is important that children have faith in something they can’t see,” Koch says. “Despite being so sophisticated today and having access to so much information, children still truly believe in Santa.”
She adds: “When we do it, we all realize how much we get out of it. We live in a town named Santa Claus. If we don’t have the Christmas spirit, who will?”
Preprinted form letters are used, but the “elves” write each child’s name at the top and add a personalized paragraph or two at the bottom. “Of course we never promise anything specific,” says volunteer Jack Hauser. “We just try to say something positive that might bring a smile or encourage a kind thought or deed.”
“Some of them really make you laugh,” he adds. “They start out saying, ‘I don’t believe in you,’ then, before the letter ends, they’ll add, ‘but just in case, here’s what I’d like to have.’”
The letters can tug at the heart, too, says Don Adams, another volunteer. Each season, he and wife Grace read and respond to around 600 letters, and, he says, “some of them are just heart-wrenching.” In some, children ask only for warm clothing or intangibles like “my grandma’s cancer to go away,” or “my mom to find a job.’”
“Those are the letters that put elaborate gift-giving into perspective and make me appreciate my family and how fortunate my children and grandchildren are when it comes to Christmas,” Hauser says.
If it seems appropriate, Koch will find a church or charity in the letter writer’s hometown to see if assistance can be arranged.
“Reading what the children have to say, finding out how they feel about Christmas, and actually sending them something in return they can keep; it’s all very rewarding,” Grace Adams says.
“It keeps us young,” adds her husband. “It helps keep our faith in people, too. The innocence and sweetness of children is just overwhelming.”