As I drive through the verdant landscape of Southern Vermont on a bright and clear July morning, my view of the Green Mountains is interrupted only by the occasional hand-painted farm stand sign advertising maple syrup or fresh blueberries for sale. Strict roadside signage guidelines (a result of the state’s 1968 anti-billboard law) are still in effect today—and if I wasn’t looking for it, I could have easily missed the small, glossy red sign proclaiming “Welcome to Santa’s Land, Entrance Ahead.”
There are only a few cars in the parking lot, but the fact that anyone is at this particular Christmas-themed park in July of 2019 is something of a miracle in itself. Santa’s Land USA first opened its gingerbread-trimmed doors in 1957. Located in Putney, a small town on the Vermont-New Hampshire border, the park cycled through several different owners throughout the years. It eventually fell into disrepair, closed in 2013, and sat abandoned for four years before it was purchased by David Haversat, who reopened the park in late 2017.
Visitors now enter and exit through the gift shop, freshly painted with red-and-white stripes reminiscent of a candy cane. There are flowers blooming in the decorative window boxes, and brightly-colored, painted presents of varying shapes and sizes disguise the shop’s concrete block foundation. The door is flanked by toy soldiers and topped with a dapper gingerbread family, nestled in a bright blue gable. The oversized cookies—original to the park—remain jovial, even if the future of Santa’s Land hasn’t always been so promising.
Christmas in July
I am drawn to vintage storybook parks, which often include Christmas-themed attractions, but this is the first time I’ve been to a park dedicated entirely to the December holiday. Despite changing tastes and competition from high-thrill attractions, Santa’s Land isn’t the only Christmas park still in operation. In fact, two—Santa’s Workshop in North Pole, New York and Santa’s Village in New Hampshire—are located just a few hundred miles from Putney (others haven’t been as lucky).
It might seem strange to visit Santa’s Land in July, but the disparity between seasons—real and imagined—only adds to the novelty of it all. When I inquire at the gift shop, I’m told Haversat is expecting me and to ask around until I find him. There aren’t many people in the park early on a Sunday morning, so it doesn’t take long.
It’s also easy to find Haversat because he’s chatting with the park’s namesake, Santa himself. Mr. Claus points to his short-sleeved, white-fur-trimmed Hawaiian shirt and introduces himself to me as “Summer Santa.” Although he dons the trademark wide, black belt and pointy hat, “It’s just too hot to wear long sleeves,” he says.
Despite the uncanny resemblance, Santa (he never divulges his “real” name) didn’t approach Haversat expecting to be given a starring role at Santa’s Land. He was helping out with various tasks around the park when the idea clicked. “I was once told, ‘You’ll never get paid for having a beard,’” Santa says. “Here, Santa not only makes toys, he also operates heavy machinery.”
In addition to his non-traditional suit, you may notice something else absent from this particular Santa’s repertoire: “I don’t say ‘ho-ho-ho’ because it sounds like something you’d hear in a haunted house,” Santa says. “For some children, it’s the equivalent of me screaming at them.”
A dream job
Haversat first visited Santa’s Land with his parents when he was seven years old. Putney was just far enough away from his home in Connecticut for Haversat to believe that it was the actual ho-ho-home of Mr. Claus and his bevy of elves, reindeer, and adoring children.
“Every year after that I would come back,” Haversat says. “I saw a woman on a tractor, mowing the lawn, and said to my mom, ‘Someday, I’d like to work here.’”
Haversat says that he was saddened over the years as he witnessed the decline of the park. In its heyday, the Santa’s Land petting zoo featured goats, deer, and exotic birds but during the winter of 2013-14, more than a dozen animals (including reindeer) were neglected and died; the previous owner was charged with animal abuse and essentially abandoned Santa’s Land.
By the time Haversat was finally able to realize his dream and purchase the park, it was in bad shape. Nearly every structure had been vandalized—windows were smashed, the gift shop was looted, and drug paraphernalia littered the ground. With a little help from his friends—and “gallons and gallons of paint”—Haversat has been slowly trying to bring the park back to its former glory.
“I finally got my wish of mowing the lawn,” says Haversat, laughing.
Resurrecting a roadside attraction
Most of the park is original—including the charming, cottage-like structures and several rides—and Haversat is content to keep it that way. “It’s very nostalgic,” he says. “We don’t really want to change the architecture.” Guests can visit Santa’s House, ride through the woods on Santa’s Alpine Railroad, or slip down a wavy hillside slide on a burlap sack. There is a tiny, open-air chapel with a nativity scene, but most of Santa’s Land focuses on the pop-culture—instead of the religious—aspects of the holiday.
Although traditional sign painters are increasingly hard to find, Haversat works with two different artists to maintain the various signs, figures, and murals throughout the park. Since assuming ownership, he has added three kiddie rides and plans to add several more in the future. He bought and refurbished a 36-horse carousel that once stood at Coney Island’s Astroland, and hopes to erect a pavilion around it.
Since he was a kid, Haversat has also been interested in set design and holiday window displays. Using cardboard and whatever else he could find, he built his own festive scenes in his basement, and now he has a significantly larger canvas to work with at Santa’s Land. One building houses Bear Mountain, a Haversat creation featuring stuffed polar bears and penguins roasting marshmallows over a campfire, dancing in their igloos, and grilling fish amidst an icy backdrop glittering with snow.
Haversat may have upgraded his materials and improved his craftsmanship, but his displays are no less imaginative than the ones he dreamed up as a child. “Maybe it’s outdated,” he says as he describes his animated, whimsical worlds. “But when you’re small, it’s magical.”
Where kids can be kids
Most adults may no longer believe in Santa, but for many parents, a safe place where their kids can just be kids is invaluable, no matter the season. Haversat doesn’t think larger, more expensive amusement parks like Six Flags are his competition—in fact, he considers the slower pace of Santa’s Land to be an asset.
“We’re the very last roadside attraction in Vermont,” says Santa. “People can be comfortable, they can sit in the shade while their kids run around and enjoy the park.”
Children can run free at Santa’s Land with minimal parental supervision, ride several kiddie rides, and mail a letter to Santa—or better yet, dictate their wishes directly to the jolly man himself. Everyone who writes a letter to Santa—and drops it in a red-and-green mailbox marked “Letters to Santa”—receives a reply. “It’s not a job,” Santa says. “Meeting the kids and hearing the stories is just so cool.”
Unlike a department store or mall, visitors are encouraged to take their own photos with Santa’s Land’s resident Santa free of charge. Haversat says its important that his park remain accessible and affordable to families who may not otherwise be able to take their kids on lavish vacations. Admission is just $13.95 ($11.95 for those 65 and older) and the most expensive item on the menu at the Candy Cane Cupboard snack shop is $4. Guests may also bring their own food and eat lunch on one of several picnic tables nestled among the pine trees.
“It really is a bargain,” Haversat says.
Santa’s Land is currently open every Saturday and Sunday from the end of June until Christmas. While they do see attendance steadily increase in the days leading up to the holiday, “people don’t stay as long as they do in the summer, because it’s cold,” Haversat says.
Monkeys and memories
It’s not just the kids that have something to say to Santa. Over the last six decades, the Putney park has been a holiday or summertime staple for several generations of families—many of whom return today, eager to reminisce about the formative years they spent visiting Santa’s Land.
“People who came as children now bring their own kids,” says Santa. “It’s quite a remarkable place.”
One woman, who first visited in 1957, returned recently with her family to celebrate her 89th birthday. “She slid down the steep hill—and climbed back up again—so many times that her grandchildren were unable to keep up,” Santa says.
Some people’s experiences at Santa’s Land may not have been as heartwarming, but they were certainly memorable. One man told Haversat about the time an irate monkey bit off one of his toes—and took off his shoe to prove it. Another man asked Haversat to alert him if he ever discovered a wedding ring among the weeds—he lost it years ago when a camel sucked it off his finger and spat it into the woods.
The animal pens and feeding stations scattered around the property remain empty for now, although Haversat hasn’t ruled out bringing a petting zoo back to the park. Both Haversat and his Santa are full of ideas for the future, including a magic show, a holiday lights display, and nights dedicated to people in uniform—veterans, current military, and first responders—and their families.
Haversat, a magician and the owner of an auction company specializing in magic-related collectibles, didn’t buy Santa’s Land expecting to get rich. He’s ambitious, but realistic, about the niche park’s prospects. “You can’t have a place like this expecting to make a million dollars,” he says. “For me, it’s a labor of love.”
If you go
Santa’s Land USA is open every Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., from June 29 until Christmas.