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Searching For The True Meaning Of Christmas In Santa Claus, Indiana

When pulling up to the Santa Claus Museum and Village, a 22-foot gray statue of Santa Claus greets visitors. He holds a bag full of toys and stands on an engraved plinth that reads: "Dedicated to the Children of the World. In Memory of Undying Love." Next to the statue is a a white church, built in 1880. Two Christmas wreaths deck the doors.

It’s December 21, the last day that volunteer elves answer the letters addressed to Santa that come from as nearby as Kentucky and Ohio, and as far away as Belarus and Taiwan.

The deluge starts around November. Every letter addressed to “Santa Claus” comes to this rural town in Southern Indiana.

Pat Koch helps answers those letters. Also known as Chief Elf, she and an army of volunteers answer every letter that comes with a return address. This year, the elves mailed out more than 20,000 letters to kids around the world. The postage isn’t cheap: Koch’s non-profit got donations to help cover the more than $10,000 in costs.

America’s Christmas Hometown

Santa Claus welcomes more visitors than the number of people who live there. With a population of around 2,500, the area sees some 10,000 people every year. And travelers don’t just come to feel the festive Christmas spirit. There’s also an uptick in visitors in the summer thanks to the Holiday World Theme Park and Splashin Safari Water Park.

Santa Claus was founded in the 1850s. The town’s leaders wanted to name it Santa Fe -- pronounced as FEE. But there was already a Santa Fe in the state so they settled on an alternative: Santa Claus.

Around World War I, the letters addressed to Santa Claus began pouring in. The city’s postmaster tried to answer all of them, but was overwhelmed. In the 1930s, Koch’s father, Jim Yellig started helping the Santa Claus Post Office sort through the letters. He enlisted the town’s veteran groups, monastery and other organizations to help as well.

“Our history is we answer letters," Koch says. "We get it done."

And part of that history also has to be cashing in, right? Especially during the holiday season that now seems to begin around Halloween and stretch through Christmas.

Much has been talked about the commercialization of Christmas in the United States. I didn’t know what I’d find in Santa Claus, Indiana, but the New Yorker in me kind of wanted to see a Times Square of Christmas -- a town draped in glimmer, Christmas lights and a plethora of gaudy statues of Santa. The town’s tagline after all is, "America’s Christmas Hometown."

Cashing in on Christmas?

On Three Kringle Place in Santa Claus, Indiana, sits a brick building that looks like a house. Over the arch of the entrance reads "Santa’s TOYS." The store has been open since July.

Mark Schmidt, co-owner of the specialty shop, moved here from Northeastern Pennsylvania. Schmidt and his wife always wanted to open a toy store. His wife got the idea to move to Santa Claus after seeing the town featured on House Hunters, a reality show that follows families on their quest for a new home.

“There is a fine line between making money off of Christmas and exploiting it,” Schmidt says.

He says the town -- through laws -- does a pretty good job at toeing that line. Schmidt gave an example of a marketing tactic he wanted to use when he first moved to town.

“I wanted to paint the word ‘TOYS’ on the roof and just to draw attention,” Schmidt says.

The verdict on that was clear cut -- absolutely not.

“They will never allow this town to become that commercial, Las Vegas, blinking lights, 'get your shirts here' kinda place,” he says.

But even though Santa Claus’ Christmas attractions are understated, I wonder how they sit with people who prefer a more religious interpretation of the holiday.

So I take it to church. And I meet Tim Ahlemeyer, the lead pastor of the Santa Claus United Methodist Church.

“Do you believe in Santa?” I ask.

“I absolutely do. I absolutely do,” Ahlemeyer says. “Oh my goodness. To not believe in Santa Claus is to lose a whole portion of my life.”

Wait. What?

Ahlemeyer believes in the idea of Santa Claus, and what the jolly symbol represents. However, he says he’s challenged by other pastors on how he makes sense of the image of St. Nick when he believes the conversation should center around the birth of Jesus Christ.

He references Narnia novelist C.S. Lewis and the hopelessness some felt after the world wars. The symbols in the Chronicles of Narnia, he says, help people toggle between what the world can be, for example in the Chronicles of Narnia, and reality. The symbols of Christmas such as gifts, Christmas trees and Santa Claus do the same by helping people understand concepts such as love, hope and belief in a higher power, Ahlemeyer says.

Before I leave, Ahlemeyer gives me a tour of the church. Instead of ridged wooden pews, there are cushioned chairs neatly placed in rows. To the right of the stage is a Christmas tree, wrapped gifts and a model of Santa Claus.

With gray hair, an unbothered temperament and a burly physique, Ahlemeyer resembles the Santa Claus that I spoke to earlier in the commercial center of the town.

“Serious question -- are you Santa?” I ask.

With a smile, he says, “I’m not Santa. I’m Pastor Tim.”

Unsatisfied, I make the five-minute drive back to the Santa Claus Christmas Store where I met the town Santa earlier. I find him standing there, talking to employees in the bedazzled ornament store.

In this Southeastern Indiana town 70 miles west of Louisville, Santa Claus and a higher power coexist.

“I get to live in a place surrounded by those symbols of hope all year round, 365 days of the year," Ahlemeyer says. "The symbols of Christmas are symbols of hope.”

Roxanne Scott covers education for WFPL News.