In Santa Claus, Indiana, the post office is a flurry of activity this time of year—and that’s the way the town likes it. “It’s pretty cheerful in here,” says Postmaster Cheryl Bailey in the midst of her second holiday season. She has been with the USPS since 2013, but a position at this particular post office in her own community has always been her goal.
The famous post office is the only one in the world with the Santa Claus name, and every December it receives more than 400,000 pieces of mail (compared to 13,000 in other months). “We get busy, but it’s a good busy, and the [employees] have been doing this a long time,” says Bailey. The team has plenty of extra holiday help—including volunteer elves.
Letters to Santa
For more than 100 years, letters addressed to Santa from all over the world have been routed to southwest Indiana. In 1914, then-Postmaster James Martin started writing back, responding to every letter at his own expense in an effort to spread holiday spirit. By 1930, Robert Ripley took notice, featuring Martin and his post office in the popular, internationally syndicated comic strip Ripley’s Believe it or Not.
“The town always received letters from kids, but the year Ripley’s happened there were so many letters that Martin had to ask his friend Jim Yellig for help,” says Nell Hedge, director of the town’s Santa Claus Museum & Village.
More than a million letters poured in that year, but Yellig was well connected and happy to help, enlisting volunteers from the American Legion, seminarians from nearby St. Meinrad Archabbey, and the Sisters of St. Benedict from the Monastery of the Immaculate Conception in the neighboring town of Ferdinand. Even local high school students helped, answering letters in their typing class.
According to the Indianapolis Star, the Ripley’s stunt—and the wave of letters that followed—almost resulted in the town being stripped of its beloved name. In 1931, U.S. Postmaster General Walter F. Brown saw the moniker and the amount of letters it drew as a burden on the small town post office. In response, Ripley stepped in again, this time sending a giant, nearly 4-foot-wide postcard in support of the Santa letters. Brown became inundated with letters protesting the name change, and the Hoosier town was able to keep its name and continue answering letters for years to come.
The world’s first theme park
To Yellig, the town’s name and duty to respond to Santa letters were only a part of his larger personal mission. As a sailor in the U.S. Navy during World War I, Yellig had vowed that if he survived the war, he would return to Santa Claus, Indiana, to be Santa Claus—and he now had his opportunity.
In 1935, Santa’s Candy Castle opened and an iconic 22-foot-tall statue of Santa was built on the grounds that are now also home to the Santa Claus Museum and Village. Santa Claus Land (now Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari) opened in 1946 as the world’s first theme park—Disneyland wouldn’t open its gates for nearly another decade.
Yellig was the quintessential American Santa Claus, spending almost 40 years as the official Santa of Santa Claus Land—in costume at least 300 days each year—and appearing in Christmas parades from New York City to Los Angeles.
Like most children, Yellig’s daughter, Pat Koch, believed in Santa Claus—but she says that she believed that Santa Claus was her dad. Koch describes her father as a patriotic, religious, and generous soul, and all of that went into Santa Claus for him.
“He never played Santa Claus. He was Santa Claus,” she says. Koch remembers red Santa suits hung to dry on the laundry line in their backyard growing up and a car constantly full of boxes filled with letters that needed to be answered. “It wasn’t work,” she says. “It was just what he loved to do. It was truly his life.”
Santa’s Elves, Inc.
Koch, who turned 89 this year, began helping her dad respond to letters when she was about 12, and has been passionate about it ever since. In 1976 she started Santa’s Elves, Inc. as an effort to carry on her father’s legacy. It may not be the North Pole, but Santa has plenty of helpers in this tiny town, with a population just shy of 2,400 residents.
In a normal year, Santa’s Elves and many of its volunteers gather daily in December at the historic 1856 Post Office, located on the grounds of the Santa Claus Museum and Village, to respond to letters together. Due to COVID-19-related restrictions in place this year, the elves are logging long days working from home, but they are still cheered on by their Chief Elf, Koch.
Letters arrive to Santa Claus from all over the world, sent from far away places including Australia, Russia, India, and the Cayman Islands. “We truly read every single letter,” says Hedge, noting that specific responses are sent in each reply. The nonprofit organization relies on donations to fund the expenses of postage and stationery, and on a large group of volunteers to respond to the letters and address and cancel each one by hand.
Love and joy
Back at the post office, Bailey and her team are still sorting the mail. Not all of the 400,000 letters that cycle through here each December are intended for Santa. Many are holiday cards brought or mailed to the Santa Claus post office to be hand-canceled with the town’s special holiday postmark, designed each year by a local high school student.
The people of Santa Claus, Indiana, have kept the magic of Santa alive for more than a century, and vow to continue even during the most challenging of years. There is a steadfast belief here that Santa stands for love, peace, caring, and joy.
“The world always needs joy,” says Koch.
If you go
Santa Claus, Indiana, is full of Christmas cheer anytime you visit, but is especially enchanting during the holiday season. For three weekends in December, the town hosts the Santa Claus Christmas Celebration, and the Santa Claus Land of Lights on Lake Rudolph can be enjoyed from the comfort of your car. This year, the museum is closed but the village grounds are open, and guests are encouraged to make reservations at the Historic 1856 Post Office to write your official letters to Santa. The post office reminds patrons to follow their guidelines before sending holiday letters to be postmarked.