In most cities, Christmas comes once a year… unless you live in Santa Claus, Indiana, the self-proclaimed home of the holiday season and America’s first theme park: Santa Claus Land. While amusement parks have existed in the U.S. since the 1840s, at the beginning the general idea was just having fun. It wasn’t until 1946, with Santa Claus Land’s opening, that amusement parks began developing specific themes. The attraction took advantage of the town’s unique name, hoping to draw in visitors who wanted to experience a bit of holiday spirit any time of year, and especially youngsters keen to meet St. Nick himself. Owner Louis Koch, who built the theme park as a retirement project, planned the destination with children in mind; his original park featured a toy shop, doll displays, children’s rides, and a restaurant. Over time, Koch also added a mini circus, deer farm, wax museum, and live entertainment.
But Santa Claus Land’s biggest attraction was, of course, its namesake: Santa. Its Kris Kringle impersonators took the job seriously; the park’s longest-working Santa, Jim Yellig, wore the red-and-white suit for 38 years. During his tenure, Yellig reportedly heard more than 1 million holiday wishes from park visitors, an achievement that earned him induction into the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame in 2010. Santa Claus Land went through some upgrades around the time of Yellig’s retirement in 1984, adding on zones for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July. Today, the park goes by the name Holiday World, and continues to welcome more than 1 million visitors each season.
The city of Santa Claus chose its holiday-inspired name in a bid to get its own post office, though at one point Congress considered renaming the town because it received too much mail. State lore says residents originally named the region Santa Fe, but another Indiana town had already claimed the title. To get a post office, the town had to choose a new name, leaving residents to somehow settle upon Santa Claus in the 1850s. As word got out about the unusual name, a deluge of Santa letters, holiday mail, and packages came to the city’s post office to be stamped with the Christmas-inspired postmark (especially after one kind postmaster began writing back to children who had sent letters to Santa, at his own expense). By 1931, the influx of mail overwhelmed the Postal Service, pushing Congress to consider renaming the town altogether — though legislators dropped the idea after residents argued in favor of the name. Today, the Santa Claus, Indiana, post office receives more than 400,000 pieces of mail in just December (compared to the normal 13,000 per month), all of which are processed with help from volunteers.