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In Santa Claus, Indiana, postal elves answer children's 'Dear Santa' letters

SANTA CLAUS, Ind. — The letters were piling up. Christmas, just days away. Nine volunteers — they call themselves elves — sat around a table, red-ink pens in hand, writing personal notes in response to letters from around the world, signing them “Santa Claus.”

Indiana’s Santa Claus letter project is now in its 100th year.

Patricia Koch, who with her husband established Holiday World amusement park decades ago, is chief elf. She has spent her life keeping the jolly deliverer of gifts alive in the hearts and imaginations of children everywhere.

Fueled by flavored coffee and delivered food, the volunteers carry on as the countdown to Christmas continues. They had already responded to about 8,000 letters to Santa. There was no panic, except for concern about the box labeled “China,” full of unanswered letters written to Santa in Chinese.

No one at the table reads or writes Chinese. They hoped to find someone before Santa’s reindeer take off to the Far East.

“We get letters from all around the world — Germany, Taiwan, Lithuania, you name it,” 74-year-old elf/volunteer Ed Rinehart says.

For the past several years, he was a letter-writer in the back room at the old Santa Claus post office, but got promoted this year to letter transporter and post marker.

Rinehart transports bundles of response letters from Santa from the old post office to the new one, where he hand-stamps each with a special Santa Claus post office postmark, in assembly-line fashion. Pull out a letter, push the hand-held stamp into a well-inked pad, carefully stamp the envelope, making sure the postage stamp gets inked. Then, hand the letters over to a postal worker for delivery.

By early afternoon, his elbow is tired, “and I’ve got a little ache right here that sets in every morning,” he said, massaging his shoulder.

Still, he spends long days making sure every child who writes to Santa gets a personal response postmarked from Santa Claus, Indiana.

He is wearing a poinsettia-red sweat shirt with a big embroidered Santa on the front with the words “I believe in Santa Claus.”

And he does.

“It’s universal, the belief in Santa,” he said. “You’ve got to believe, to have hope that Santa might bring something special.”

He is an old man who smiles remembering the Christmas that Santa left an electric train from the town’s old Toyland store under the tree more than 70 years ago. Today, it’s an antique on display in the museum.

Koch grew up in the 1930s and ’40s with a father who believed in the spirit of Santa. Stationed aboard a ship in a New York harbor at Christmas in 1914, Jim Yellig and his shipmates went ashore to deliver presents to poor children.

Since Yellig grew up near the southern Indiana town of Santa Claus, he was selected to wear the furry red suit. And he kept on wearing it, often 300 days a year, after in 1946 becoming the resident Santa at Santa Claus Land, the beginnings of today’s Holiday World, which attracts close to a million visitors every year.

In 1935, he offered to help a postmaster friend answer the many “Dear Santa” letters that found their way to the town of Santa Claus’ post office. He distributed them to fellow American Legion members, and took some home.

“When I was a little girl, maybe 12 years old, he would bring the letters home in the car, and the two of us would sit down at the dining room table, and I remember my mom would warn us not to get ink on the crocheted tablecloth,” Koch says.

She and her dad made sure every child received an answer from Santa.

Koch’s goal today is the same: to make sure no letters to Santa go unanswered.

“It has to be carried on, the tradition,” she says. “The children who write these letters hope to get a response,” she said. “Kids don’t believe in a lot these days, and I think if they believe in Santa Claus, in the spirit of Christmas, then we can do this to sustain the magic of giving.”

The town of Santa Claus has just 2,500 residents, and without the Holiday World crowds, it’s quiet during winter. Except on weekends in December, when children and their parents flock to town to the Santa Claus Museum and the old post office to pen a letter to Santa.

The correspondence to the North Pole has evolved over the century, but a similar thread prevails: They want gifts for themselves, but for others, too. The museum has a display of letters through the years that reflects how children perceive Santa as a figure who can bring joy at Christmas.

On Dec. 19, 1938, Joyce Carol Heeter of Rimersburg, Pennsylvania, wrote him a letter, in perfect cursive. “I am a little girl in second grade. I believe in Santa Claus. Some of my classmates do not. When you come to give out toys on Christmas Eve, don’t forget the poor children, the sick and crippled. If you can spare me a pair of snow shoes and a storybook, I’d be very happy. Please answer my letter Santa.”

It’s likely that Jim “Santa” Yellig did.

And 52 years later, in December 2010, it may have been his daughter who wrote back to a boy named Pasqual, who had requests for his family at Christmas.

“Dear Santa, I only want five things for Christmas. Please make number one come true, it is the most important. It is for my dad to come home. Number two is for my mom to have the best Christmas ever. Number three is for my brother to get A’s in school. Number four is for my sister to have the best Christmas ever too. Number five is for a new book. Christmas is giving, not getting.”

The town of Santa Claus is located in Spencer County, about 100 miles southwest of Bloomington, a 2-hour drive.

This weekend will be the busiest of the year in Santa Claus. For a list of events, go to SantaClausInd.org/Christmas. The town in on Central Standard Time.

Every year, the town sponsors a contest for high school students and chooses a design for the official Santa Claus Station postmark. This year’s winner was Shyann Smith, a senior at Heritage Hills High School.

Anyone can buy stamps, put them on envelopes and use the special Santa Claus postmark stampers available at the post office. Sisters Pat Newby, from Charlestown, and Peggy Gwinn, who lives 100 miles away in Kentucky, met up recently at the Santa Claus post office to postmark their holiday cards. Both are retired, and this was their first road trip to Santa Claus. Then, it was off to Jasper for a meal at Schnitzelbank restaurant.

The Santa Claus Post Office expects to postmark about 400,000 cards and letters this holiday season. At 49 cents per stamp, that’s $196,000 in revenue for the post office.

Letters to Santa Claus arrive in the southern Indiana town from around the world, even if addressed as simply as: Santa Claus, North Pole. The actual address is: Santa Claus, P.O. Box 1, Santa Claus, IN 47579. Every letter received before Dec. 20 gets a response. So save the address for next year.