It’s the most wonderful time of the year! In only a few short days, hundreds of millions of Americans will be leaving cookies out for Santa, unwrapping presents, and drinking unbelievable amounts of eggnog. Christmas is a time for family, for thanks, and of course for giving! Most importantly, though, Christmas is of course a time for geography. That’s why you read the blog, right?
Play this while you read for extra Christmas cheer!
There’s a massive wealth of Christmas-themed topics that I could write articles on – after all, the USA may just be the most Christmas-obsessed country in the entire world. Christmas Tree Shops dot strip malls throughout suburban America year-round, Christmas music blares from October to February, and stores count on Black Friday gift shoppers to secure profits for the year. With all the Santa mania going on, it’s no wonder that there are a fair number of Christmas-oriented places and attractions. Enough, in fact, that I can focus solely on the mascot of this wonderful holiday. Let’s take a look at the one and only Jolly Old St. Nick!
First, a bit of history. Santa Claus was named for Nicholas, a Greek priest living in Roman times. After a series of miraculous deeds, Nicholas was canonized as the patron saint of children, and his day of celebration was marked as December 6. Throughout the Middle Ages, St. Nicholas’ day was celebrated with gifts, much like Christmas today. By the 1500s, however, most Europeans preferred to give gifts on Christmas instead. St Nick was renamed Sinterklaas and reimagined as a helper of Baby Jesus whose job was to deliver gifts to children. This idea was especially popular in Germany and the Netherlands. Starting to sound familiar, yes? Well, not quite. See below:
Yeesh. Looks more like Robin Hood that the jolly Santa we know today. Anyways, Dutch immigrants brought the idea of Sinterklaas (Americanized into Santa Claus) with them to New York. Santa was originally seen as an almost pagan figure, and was shunned by the puritanical colonists of New England. By the early 1800s, however, several prominent poems (including “The Night Before Christmas”) had catapulted Santa into national popularity. Since then, Santa has become the most recognizable holiday figure anywhere.
Now, for the geography you’ve been waiting for. Let’s look at some towns that decided to name themselves after Mr. Claus!
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Santa Claus, IN
If you tell someone you’re going to a place named Santa Claus, it’s probably this one. This southern Indiana town (see map) is easily the largest and most publicized of the Santa Clauses. It is also the only one to have its own post office; Every year thousands of letters to Santa are sent here, and every year the town hires “elves” to write back on behalf of St. Nick. Santa Claus really goes all in on its Christmas theme – the town’s neighborhoods include Christmas Lake Village and Holiday Village, and Lakes Holly and Noel add a splash of holiday cheer as well.
The post office. Photo by millr on Flickr (cc)
The origin of the town’s name is pure comedy. Santa Claus was originally created in 1849 in Santa Fe. When the town attempted to establish a post office, they were told to choose another name – Santa Fe had been taken (I wrote about a similar situation in Boring, Maryland last week). The townspeople were determined to name their home after a saint, but simply couldn’t think of the perfect fit. So, they simply chose the first saint that came to their mind – Santa Claus.
Of course, the town name attracted the attention of hopeful entrepreneurs, and Santa Claus quickly became a theme park destination. Two different Santa-themed parks opened in town in the 1930s – Santa’s Candy Castle and Santa Claus Land. The two parks were operated by hated rivals, who repeatedly sued each other in an attempt to claim the title of Santa Claus’ theme park for themselves. The legal battles attracted national attention, where city folk made fun of the “Too Many Santas” debacle. Eventually, the legal fees took a toll and forced both parks to close. This opened the door for a third park, Santa Claus Land, to open. This park still exists today, and has rebranded itself as Holiday World to include other famous characters like the Easter Bunny.
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Santa Claus, AZ
If Santa Claus, Indiana is the town of Christmas present, its Arizona counterpart is the haunting ghost of Christmas past. This desert town (see map) may be named after Santa, but the Christmas spirit left along with all the people decades ago. Today, this ghost town sits forgotten, an unrecognizable part of the scenery between Las Vegas and Phoenix. But it didn’t always look this way.
This Santa Claus, unlike Indiana’s, was named specifically as a marketing ploy. The town was founded by a real estate agent by the name of Nina Talbot in the 1930s. Talbot owned quite a bit of land in this remote desert outpost, and wanted to create a family-friendly environment to convince people to buy her property. She began to build Christmas-themed attractions, advertising that children could visit Santa any day of the year. The theme park became fairly popular, as did the town’s local restaurant. Unfortunately, none of this actually persuaded anyone to move – visitors preferred to, well, visit instead of living in the middle of nowhere. Talbot saw the writing on the wall and sold the town in 1949, a defeated woman.
All that’s left. Photo by mlhradio on Flickr (cc)
The town sustained itself for a while longer, surviving off of the success of its restaurant. By the late 1960s, however, decreased traffic due to the new interstate highways doomed the town for good. By the 1980s, the town had become completely abandoned, with faded statues of elves and reindeer staring eerily at the road. As of today, nothing remains in the town except for two boarded up buildings. A toy train hung around for a while, but it appears that it’s since been removed.
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Santa Claus, GA
We end this article on a much more positive note, in the tiny hamlet of Santa Claus, Georgia! This South Georgia town (see map) has a population of just under 200, but its tiny size doesn’t stop it from embracing its festive name. Nearly every street in the town is Christmas-themed, where residents live on Candy Cane Street or Rudolph Way. While this Santa Claus doesn’t have an official post office, the city clerk’s office still accepts letters. The clerk stamps each letter with a special Santa seal (say that three times fast) before dropping them off in the neighboring town of Lyons.
Unlike the previous two entries on this list, you won’t find any theme parks – current or abandoned – in this speck of a town. The town doesn’t make much of an attempt to market its name, outside of the stamps from the clerk’s office. It never has, either – while the town was originally named as a ploy to market the local pecans, the town has been notably absent of any wacky Christmas-centered schemes. The town simply goes about its business, welcoming the few curious tourists that pass through in stride. For Christmas, the town lights its streets with luminarias – no fancy light displays or holiday gimmicks.
A warm welcome to Santa Claus. My own photo.
I actually just passed through this town, on my way between New Orleans and New York. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it little map dot, but the opportunity to snap a picture of the welcome sign alone was worth it.
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