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Image: Santa Claus Post Office
Spencer County Visitors Bureau
The Santa Claus post office is the only post office in the world with the Santa Claus name. Visitors can receive the famous Santa Claus postmark during the Christmas season and see where thousands of children's letters to Santa are received each year.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/22/2010 11:58:11 AM ET 2010-12-22T16:58:11

Do you believe in Santa Claus? Answer no to that in one small midwestern town and you’ll be more than a holiday heretic. You’ll be an obstacle to civic advancement.

Welcome to Santa Claus, Ind., population 2,041, the only town in all America named after the Jolly Ol’ Elf and dedicated to celebrating the evergreen virtues of Christmas.

“It’s year-round, but we really ramp it all up come Christmas,” says Melissa Wilkinson of the Spencer County Visitors Bureau. “There are parades, tree lightings, chestnut roastings and fierce competitions between homes vying to be best decorated.”

This is a town so crazy for Christmas that every street is named after something involving the holiday. There’s Candy Cane Lane, Mistletoe Drive, Arctic Circle and Balthazar, Melchior, and Kasper drives — the biblical names of the Three Wise Men.

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The three fire trucks at the Santa Claus Volunteer Fire Department are named Rudolph, Dasher and Blitzen, and a new EMT vehicle was dubbed Comet.

That’s not all. In Santa Claus, local Catholics worship at a church named St. Nicholas, guests overnight at Santa’s Lodge, and golfers from all over the world order Christmas Lake Golf Course logo golf balls to convert into dimpled, snow-white ornaments.

It’s almost like the town is striving to become some sort of holiday theme park, which is exactly what it would be if there wasn’t already an existing theme park devoted to that very purpose.

That would be Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari, located in — you guessed it — Santa Claus, Ind., about an hour west of Louisville.

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Town history
“Since 1852, we’ve been the only town in America with a postal designation of Santa Claus,” says Wilkinson. The town is also the birthplace of Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and was the boyhood home of Abraham Lincoln.

Sure, both men have their historic cheering sections, but neither has the fan base of the big boy with the long white beard.

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Local legend has it the town sought to be named Santa Fe, but the name was taken. So residents met to choose a more unique name, coincidentally, after church on Christmas Eve.

“The story goes that the winds blew open the doors and the sound of nearby sleigh bells drifted in,” Wilkinson says. “The kids all yelled, ‘It must be Santa Claus!’ ”

The fabled decision from long ago, one with all the mystic elements of a Hallmark Christmas movie, would end up having a dramatic impact on the holidays of current Santa Claus post mistress Marian Balbach.

“The rest of the year is pretty calm,” she says. “Come Christmas, it’s a whole new ballgame. It seems everyone in the world wants to have their Christmas cards stamped with Santa Claus, Indiana, 47579.”

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The post office goes from about 10,000 letters a month and one full-time employee to five full timers who handle about 400,000 letters in just three weeks.

Is Balbach stressed? Does she hate Christmas? Does she throw darts at Santa’s likeness?

Ho! Ho! Ho!, er, No! No! No! she insists.

“Oh, I just love it,” she says. “You can’t help but share the happiness of people who’ve driven six or seven hours just to mail Christmas cards from Santa Claus. We had one gentleman who used to gather cards and drive them here just so they could be sent from Santa Claus. He was 90, and I finally convinced him just to send them and we’d be happy to take care of it.”

Slideshow: Faces of Santa (on this page)

The real Santa Claus
Yes, postal patrons, there is a Santa Claus and not only does he receive your letters, he goes to great lengths to individually answer each and every one.

A team of Santa Claus volunteers, dubbed, of course, Santa’s Elves, answers and returns the letters sent to the post office, many of them dusted with cookie crumbs from a bumpy journey, according to chief elf Pat Koch.

“Kids all around the world think if they drop a letter to Santa Claus in the mailbox, he's going to get it,” she says. “It's our job to see that Santa answers his mail. Really, that's what Santa Claus is all about.”

Koch is the daughter-in-law of Holiday World founder Louis Koch, whose Santa Claus Land in 1946 became the world’s first themed amusement park, pre-dating Disneyland by nine years.

In the mid-1990s, the theme park, led by Koch’s son, Will, began investing heavily in roller coasters and a water park that would rival the world’s best.

By 2005, Holiday World edged out all the Disneys, the Six Flags and a host of better-known others when the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions awarded it Best Park, the smallest park to ever earn the distinction.

Sadly, this visionary father of three died of complications of diabetes in June at the age of 47. On Nov. 16, Koch was posthumously inducted into the IAAPA’s Hall of Fame alongside industry legends Walt Disney and Milton Hershey. His induction ceremony noted his eagerness to give rather than gouge.

Besides free parking, the park (open May through October) offers free sunscreen and everywhere are unattended soda oases that allow guests to drink as much Pepsi product as they want all day for free all summer. In an age when others in the entertainment industry routinely charge $4.50 or more for 12-ounces of flat soda, the gesture is flabbergasting.

“He really wanted to give as much back to the guests as he could,” says park spokeswoman Paula Werne. “That’s just the kind of guy he was.”

What do you expect from a man who devoted his life to helping really put Santa Claus on the map?

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Photos: Faces of Santa 2010

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  1. Sweets for Christmas

    A man dressed as Santa Claus distributes sweets to children at St. Anthony Church in Lahore, Pakistan on Dec. 25. (Mohsin Raza / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Special delivery

    Door Gunner Petty Officer Richard Symonds of the Royal Navy wears a Santa Claus outfit as he delivers mail and presents to troops around Helmand province in Afghanistan on Dec. 25. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Santas go running

    People dressed as Santa Claus take part in the annual Chrismas race in Vilnius, Lithuania on Dec. 25. (Petras Malukas / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Paddlin' Santa

    A lifeguard dressed as Santa Claus outfit paddles to sea on Brighton Beach, southern England, on Dec. 25. (Paul Hackett / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. North Pole's angel?

    Joshua "Spanky" Tucker, 24, dressed as Santa Claus, rides down the Strip in Las Vegas on Dec. 24. (Craig L. Moran / Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Santa rides the rails

    Visitors ride along with a man dressed as Santa Claus on the roller coaster at Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier in Santa Monica, Calif. on Dec. 24 (Richard Vogel / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. He never forgets

    An elephant dressed in a Santa Claus costume performs by standing on its hind legs before gifts were given to students to mark the Christmas season at a school in Ayutthaya, Thailand on Dec. 24. (Pornchai Kittiwongsakul / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Comforting Claus

    Thomas Shuman, 3, hugs Santa, played by Rex Meyers, during a Christmas party for the Northwest College Child Care Center in Powell, Wyo., on Dec. 10, 2010. (Ilene Olson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Wet 'n' wild

    As part of the "Aqua Christmas 2010" show, a trainer wearing a Santa Claus outfit is pushed out of the water by a dolphin performing tricks at the Shinagawa Aqua Stadium in Tokyo, Japan on Dec. 17. (Franck Robichon / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Season's meeting

    Students in Berlin, Germany earning a little extra money as Santa Clauses are briefed during a meeting by older, experienced Santas on Nov. 27, before they head out to Christmas parties and people's homes. (Wolfgang Kumm / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Special delivery

    Postmen deliver cheer while riding on their motorbikes during an event to begin their Christmas season service at the Central Post Office in Seoul, South Korea. (Kim In-Cheol / Newsis via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Sporty Santa

    A man dons his Santa outfit and holds a flare as he wakeboards at a water ski set on a small lake in Hamburg, Germany on Dec. 5, 2010. (Christian Charisius / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. St. Nicks in knickers

    About 100 runners participate in the charity Great Santa Claus Jogging to benefit a local pediatric clinic on Dec. 12, 2010. The run is about 1.2 miles through the streets of Budapest, Hungary. (Balazs Mohai / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Hitting the slopes

    Skiers and snowboarders dress up and head down the slope on Dec. 5. 2010 as part of the 11th annual Santa Sunday at Sunday River in Newry, Maine. Participants get a free lift ticket if they dress as Santa and donate $10 or more to the Bethel Rotary Club's annual toy drive. (Joel Page / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Getting merry

    Revelers celebrate on Dec. 11 during the annual New York City Santacon, a mass gathering of people dressed as Santa who take to the streets in cities across the country before Christmas. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Santa's fly ride

    Santa flies into Carmel Valley, Calif., via helicopter on Dec. 11, 2010 (David Royal / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Scared of Santa?

    Four-month-old Tavist Lohden, left, lets out a cry as he his held by Santa Claus, portrayed by Bob Campbell, at the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden in Dallas on Dec. 11, 2010. (LM Otero / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Santas get swift

    Ready, set, go! Thousands run the 5 kilometer 2010 Santa Dash through the streets of Liverpool, England, on Dec. 5, 2010. (Paul Ellis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Swimming with the fishes

    A South Korean diver swims with fish as children watch during a Christmas event at the Coex Aquarium in Seoul, South Korea on Dec. 11, 2010. Christmas is one of the biggest holidays celebrated in the country. (Park Ji-Hwan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Friends, how many of us have them?

    Men dressed as Father Frost, left, the central figure in Russia's new year festival, and Julenissen – Norway’s Santa Claus, take part in Christmas festivities in Moscow on Dec. 7, 2010. (Denis Sinyakov / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Ho, ho, row!

    After rowing their way through the Donau river in southern Germany, these eight Santas brought presents to the children of the city's orphanage on Dec. 5, 2010. (Josef Lang / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. He's a little runaway

    Carrying a hefty sack, Santa trudges through the snow over train tracks in Germany on Dec. 14, 2010. (Patrick Pleul / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Is this real?

    Takiyah Stewart does the classic tug on Santa's beard during his pre-Christmas visit to the nonprofit Girls Incorporated in Oak Ridge, Tenn. (Scott Fraker / The Oak Ridger via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Swarming the city

    Hundreds of Santas descend on London's Trafalgar Square, startling commuters and tourists with a tide of seasonal cheer on Dec. 11, 2010, as part of the annual Santacon celebration. (Sang Tan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Tree hunting

    Santa Claus walks through a Christmas tree farm on Dec. 12, 2010 in Mellensee near Berlin, Germany. (Andreas Rentz / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Santas on stilts

    Thousands staged a parade in downtown Porto, Portugal on an attempt to break the Guinness World Record of most people dressed as Santa Claus . (Patricia De Melo Moreira / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Dude, where's my sleigh?

    Donald Boyce does a "shaka" as he shares a wave with a surfer while riding in an outrigger canoe off Waikiki beach in Honolulu, Hawaii on Dec. 11, 2010. (Hugh Gentry / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Scientific Santa

    Scientist Jens Vindum, dressed as Santa Claus, watches as two reindeer graze on the living roof of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco on Nov. 23, 2010. The reindeer will be part of a holiday exhibit at the academy called "Tis the Season for Science" that runs through Jan. 2. (Eric Risberg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. March madness

    Volunteers of America's Sidewalk Santas kick off the holiday season walking through Manhattan during the 108th Annual Parade of Santas in New York on Nov. 26, 2010. (Brendan McDermid / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Santa gets sacked

    John Toomey, dressed as Santa Claus, laughs while waiting for customers at Lefty O'Douls on Dec. 10, 2010 in San Francisco, California. He worked every holiday season at Macy's in San Francisco for the past 20 years, was fired after he told a innapropriate joke. He ended up appearing on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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