For generations, children of all ages have shared their hopes and wishes in heartfelt letters addressed to Santa Claus. Many of those envelopes have found their way to the small town named for that jolly old fellow – Santa Claus, Indiana.
There, groups of dedicated individuals have been answering those letters for more than a century. Now a new book from Indiana University Press tells the story of that annual project of love and includes some of the most poignant, hilarious and unusual letters from around the world that have found their way to the Hoosier town.
“Letters to Santa Claus” contains a foreword by “Head Elf” Pat Koch and an afterword by Emily Weisner Thompson, executive director of the Santa Claus Museum & Village. Among the more than 250 actual letters in the book, one child hopes to make his life better with a time machine; another from the 1930s notes that brother Jimmie “ain’t so good so you could leave him out;” one worries about Santa being cold at the North Pole – “Does the wind blow through your whiskers?”
Organized by decades beginning with the 1930s and continuing through the 2010s, the letters show that many things have changed over the years. And many have remained the same. Letter writers ask for the safe return of loved family members and world peace, for basics such as warm underwear and boots, for treats like candy and nuts, and for gifts for others.
“Don’t give me anything but give my mother some shoes please with heels on like the other ladies,” writes an 8-year-old girl in a Chicago letter postmarked 1953, addressed to Santa Claus, North Pole. “Our daddy still doesn’t come home and mama cries at night when she thinks we are asleep.”
A 1939 letter from a Missouri boy talks about “the World War” as though World War I would be the end of such global devastation. “My dad was a soldier in the World War,” he writes. “He got shot when he was a deputy sheriff by gangsters after he came back … Some day I will be a man and I want to be brave.”
As time passes, early gift requests change from books, boxing gloves, footballs, tricycle, tool chest, Shirley Temple dolls, baseball mitts, drums, nylon stockings, doctor sets and electric trains to more modern choices like an Apple gift card, iPad, Xbox, Minecraft games, trips to Disney World, race car, singing group One Direction under her tree, 80-inch flat screen TV, two tickets to Paris and “Frozen” shoes and dress.
One boy wants to trade his new baby sister for an elf because “girls stink.” Another wants a “dog, dog, dog. I would even trade my one and only mom for a dog.”
Some youngsters swear they have been perfect angels all year. Other say they are trying. Still others are far more blunt about their misdeeds – kicked the teacher, has not hit her brother over 1,350 times that year, broke his sister’s phone, pushed his little sister a little bit, won’t clean his room and was bad in school.
LEGEND OF SANTA CLAUS, INDIANA
How did it all begin that a small Indiana town (population about 2,300) became the destination for all these letters? The story goes that a long time ago, a group of people lived in a Southern Indiana community that needed a name in order to get a post office.
On a cold December night in 1852, townsfolk gathered in a little log church to decide on a name. Suddenly a cold gusty wind blew open the door of the church. In the distance could be heard the faint sound of sleigh bells ringing through the quiet winter night. It was quite puzzling since there was no one around for miles. Everyone was in the tiny church.
But the children were not puzzled. The voice of a small child excitedly rang out, “It’s Santa Claus, it’s Santa Claus.” The congregation had its answer.
And the name of Santa Claus, Indiana — along with its distinctive postmark — has become known around the world. On May 21, 1856, the U.S. Post Office Department approved a post office for the new town of Santa Claus, Indiana.
Come Christmas time, an estimated 400,000 pieces of mail find their way to the tiny Spencer County post office. As the only “Santa Claus Post Office” in the world, the Hoosier office offers a different picture postmark each holiday season since 1983. The postmark is designed by a local high school art student each year, as part of an annual contest.
Over the years, Santa Claus has become more than the popular post office and unique postmark. It has evolved into a year-round attraction anchored by the world’s first theme park, Holiday World. Then along came another part of the legend, a man named Jim Yellig. Born in 1895 in nearby Mariah Hill, Jim’s career as Santa Claus began when he was in the Navy. In 1914, his ship pulled into port in New York so the crew could celebrate Christmas.
Jim and his shipmates decided to throw a Christmas party for the poor children who lived in Brooklyn Navy Yard. Chosen to play Santa at the party, Jim looked at the happy youngsters and made a pledge – if he made it through the war and returned home, he would try to keep bringing the joy of Christmas to youngsters as Santa Claus.
Living in the town of Santa Claus made it easy for Jim to keep that promise. In his volunteer role dressed as Santa at the post office, Jim also pitched in to help answer some of the mail that was pouring in. It soon became a full-time project for Jim, his wife, and the Santa Claus American Legion. Jim also found the perfect niche when Santa Claus Land (the early Holiday World) opened. He was hired to become the park’s first Santa Claus – a role he enjoyed until his death in 1984.
His daughter, Patricia Yellig Koch, recalls that her father didn’t just “play” Santa Claus. When he put on the suit, he was Santa Claus.
Which brings us to the magical tale of Patricia Koch’s marriage. Notice that last name? The daughter of Santa Claus at Holiday World married the son of the Holiday World owner. And Koch is carrying on the traditions of both her father and her father in law.
“My father gave us one certainty in an uncertain world,” she says. “There is a Santa Claus.”
For more information: Contact IU Press at http://iupress.indiana.edu