• In this briefing, leaders from the Spencer County Visitors Bureau and the Santa Claus Museum explain how the city used its unique name as a starting point to grow a strong municipal brand and create a tourist-centered economic base for the community. 


Link for press photos available here:


MODERATOR:  So good morning, everyone, and welcome to our virtual briefing today with some of the – our friends from Santa Claus, Indiana.  My name is Jake Goshert; I am the moderator of this briefing.  As a reminder, the briefing is on the record and we will post a transcript and video on our website later today,  

For the journalists joining us on Zoom, please take a moment now to rename yourself with your name and your outlet, and we’ll get started soon with the briefing.

Our distinguished briefers today, we’re joined by Melissa Arnold, the executive director of the Spencer County Visitors Bureau, and Patricia Koch, the founder of the Santa Claus Museum.  Before I turn it over to them for some opening remarks, one quick reminder.  They are joining us as independent subject matter experts, and the views expressed by our briefers not – who are not affiliated with the Department of State are their own, and they do not reflect necessarily the views of the U.S. Government or the Department of State, and their participation in this Foreign Press Center program does not necessarily imply endorsement, approval, or recommendation of their views.

But with that introduction, I’m going to hand it over to Melissa Arnold from the Spencer County Visitors Bureau and Patricia Koch, the founder of the Santa Claus Museum, for some opening remarks. 

MS ARNOLD:  Welcome to Santa Claus, Indiana, virtually.  I am here at the Spencer County Visitors Center with Ms. Koch, our chief elf.  We are in Santa Claus, Indiana, where it is Christmas all the time, but especially during the holiday season.  There’s a Santa Claus Christmas celebration the first three weekends of December, filled with experiences for families, events, and activities.  Where else can you Christmas shop, write a letter to Santa, roast chestnuts on an open fire, and drive through light shows, all in one little quaint town?  

Ms. Koch is here.  She’s with the Santa Claus Museum and Village, who can tell us all about the history of the town, and one of our longest-standing traditions of answering letters sent from all over the world to Santa Claus. 

MS KOCH:  All right.  Well, I am Pat Koch.  I am sometimes called the chief elf, sometimes called the matriarch of the town, which I don’t like that.  But anyway, elf – chief elf is just great.  I have – my father was Santa Claus from 1930 until 1984, and so I inherited a great love for Santa and a belief in Santa that still lives today and try to follow in his footsteps of bringing joy to children, specifically now – it used to be in Holiday World for many years, and everybody knows that’s a place of great fun and joy for children.  

But now I’m – founded the Santa Claus Museum and Village, and did that because there’s so much history here.  There’s so much history about how the post office was named, how the town was named, who were the first inhabitants, how did the letter-writing start, what’s the story behind all of these things.  And I knew that I had lived through them and thought that it was really an obligation for me to try to retain those in some way.

So I did do a book called Santa’s Daughter, which has a great deal of history in it, plus getting the original post office building on our grounds from 1856 and the original Protestant church from 1880.  And then there’s a wonderful 22-foot – it is not granite, it is a concrete statue of Santa Claus that is from 1935.  So we have those three buildings to see, or items, and then we have a museum of documents and stories and pictures of the history of the town and the post office and Santa Claus himself in a Santa Claus outfit and a train station and different things.  A really fun place to visit because it’s outside; people can walk around.  Children can go up and visit the statue and roll down the hill in the grass, and I love it because it’s just really very wholesome.  

And the biggest thing I suppose I do, especially from before Thanksgiving until Christmas, is to help Santa answer all the letters that children write.  We receive many, many, many, many, many thousands of letters that come to this town, Santa Claus, Indiana, and we spend many hours answering every one that we can answer – as we can possibly answer – and with many wonderful volunteers.  At this moment I have three volunteers over there.  We are – we – the letters would not get to the children, so we’re being very specific about answering those that are close.  But it is a labor of love for us to do that, and we have answered currently 21,000 letters, and the postage and everything about that is free.  Nobody pays a penny for anything.  And if you have a chance to talk about us, please ask parents to check their letters and make sure that we have an address.  Santa knows where the children are, but the elves don’t always know.  So we do need an address.  

Otherwise, this is what we do and we’re finishing up with a great season of making many children happy.  

MODERATOR:  Very good.  Thank you so much for the introduction to Santa Claus, Indiana.  We’re going to turn it over to question and answers now.  So journalists, if you have any questions about Santa Claus and the activities and the work they do there, please raise your virtual hand by clicking the “raise hand” icon in Zoom.  We do have one kind of a – one pre-submitted question I wanted to ask Ms. Koch.  If you could talk about the ability of Santa Claus, Indiana.  Do they – do you also welcome international tourists, and are there efforts to attract visitors from outside the country to come join you this time of year? 

MS KOCH:  We do very much welcome international students.  We have a wonderful program in our high school of having students from all over the world, and I – the other night I had at least eight students from Spain, Germany, Norway – I remember those – that were helping us answer letters.  So that is where they help us.  The ironic thing is that most of the children from – international students write English very, very well, so we really don’t need to know their native language.  But we do answer so they know that Santa knows their language even though we are in Indiana.

And of course we do have visitors, right, from —

MS ARNOLD:  We have visitors from all over, all over the world.  And of course we welcome them with open arms here in Santa Claus, Indiana. 

MODERATOR:  Okay.  We’ll turn to Farrah Tomazin from the Sydney Morning News.  Farrah, if you could unmute yourself, ask your question, please. 

QUESTION:  Hi there.  Can you hear me? 

MODERATOR:  We can hear you. 

MS KOCH:  Yes.  

QUESTION:  Fantastic.  Thanks for doing this.  I’ve always had a fascination with American towns and cities that have got quirky and interesting names, so yeah, appreciate it.  Look, I just wanted to get a bit more of a sense of the history of this place, how it came to be, who were the first sort of inhabitants of it, how the letter writing began, and just also wanted to check how many you received.  I think you said 21,000 you’ve responded to, or 2,100.  Can I check the – just basically, what time period that relates to as well. 

MS KOCH:  All right.  Well, the history of the town I would love to talk about.  It was originally Santa Fee.  My wonderful grandmother, Apollonia Shew*, always called it Santa Fee, and I thought that’s what it was.  We have the document in our museum that shows very definitely that in 1856, the postmaster from Fulda, Indiana, made an application to what on the document says Washington City, January 8th, 1856, to get a post office in the town of Santa Fee.  And that “Santa Fee” is up in the left-hand corner. 

Somebody wrote somehow, “Choose another name than Santa Fe.”  I don’t know if they didn’t see the other E or just decided to not pay attention to it.  But there was already a Santa Claus post – there was a Santa Fe post office in Indiana, so they said, you can’t have that name.  But that’s – we were Santa Fee. 

But at any rate, somebody wrote “Santa Claus” with a black ink pen with – Santa Claus, and then somebody wrote through that, and then somebody wrote something that looks like “Seedlick” – of course, we wouldn’t be here if we were Seedlick – and then above all of that somebody wrote “Santa Clause” with an E.  That person changed our history forever.  We have no idea who wrote that. 

But the magic of all that is that it happened January 8th, 1856.  And the postmaster who made the application, his name was Nickolaus Fisher*.  So Nickolaus* himself asked that this town be given a post office name of Santa Claus, which I think is magic.  So that’s how the town came to be. 

The letter writing, we are told, started in 1914, but we have no documentation of that at all.  We do have documentation from 1930 on, when my father returned from World War I and saw that the postmaster was very busy with children’s letters and all the mail that was coming in.  And he had been Santa Claus on his first ship when he was a 19-year-old sailor in Brooklyn Navy Yard and they were looking for somebody to be Santa Claus for a children’s party.  And another sailor said, there’s a guy in the engine room that says he’s from Santa Claus, Indiana, so maybe he’ll do it.  He did that that day, and he made the vow that if he lived through the war, he would be Santa Claus.

So when he returned to his native place, he began being Santa Claus, immediately visited the postmaster and saw how busy he was, and he organized the letter writing somewhat in that he took the letters out in big boxes to the local high school, to the two monasteries we have in the area, to American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars clubs, and just had them answer letters.  It was kind of a just, hey, neighborhood, let’s all help do this. 

That continued on.  I started when I was about 12 years old and we would – he would bring letters home and we would answer them at home.  And then in 1984, a group of us formed the group called Santa’s Elves, Incorporated, which made us more – we were more organized.  We still did it in our homes, but we had certain times when people could do it.  We started having some form letters to help because it becomes an almost – you cannot write a letter to 21,000 people and have everybody do it correctly.  And so it became more organized in the ’80s.  I started when I was 12 years old, which was a long time ago, and then went away for 10 years to nurse, and then came back.  So I restarted in the ’60s and at that point took over the legacy of my father, who passed away in ’84.  I was Santa’s helper for 54 years. 

So it is a family legacy.  Now we do it in the back room of the original post office building with many, many, many wonderful volunteers.  The volunteers sign up online now so we know how many people are coming, and we can organize it.  We have training, because it has to be done properly.  We really respect these children.  We’re just so happy that they believe, and we feel that it’s our obligation to get a letter back to them.  And so we have a little training to make sure that they do it properly.  And we do have four form letters, but each letter is customized with the children’s name, and at the bottom of the letter there is a personal note and a message to the child that pertains to what they wrote.  So if they say, “I’ve been trying hard in school,” Santa says, “Keep up the good work in school.”  If they say, “I had a fight with my sister this morning,” “Please try to stop fighting with your sister.”  We try to say something that they mention in the letter so they know Santa read the letter.

So it is a labor of love, and we have many volunteers who spend a great deal of time.  We start officially the Monday after Thanksgiving, but my family always starts before that.  And by the way, we get international letters, and there were 600 letters sent to Chinese – communist Chinese before Thanksgiving so that they would get them by Christmas.  We get them from all over the world.  And everything, as I said, is free, and given by donation.  

So did that answer your question?

QUESTION:  Yes, thank you.

MS ARNOLD:  And I will just add that Mrs. Koch is stating that they’ve answered 21,000 letters so far this year.  Some years they answer as many as 35,000.  So it varies greatly from year to year, but it definitely shows that kids are writing, and still are writing letters and sending them in the mail, which we think is incredible.

MS KOCH:  And believing.  (Laughter.)

MODERATOR:  We have another question – a hand up from Sandra, from Italy.  Sandra, if you can unmute yourself and ask your question, please.

QUESTION:  From France, from Paris, but I’m living in New York.

MODERATOR:  Oh, very sorry.  Sorry.

QUESTION:  (Laughter.)  But we are neighbor; we like pizza, it’s okay.  (Laughter.)

I have two question for you guys.  First of all, congratulations for helping Santa Claus’s (inaudible) from you.  I have actually three question.  Have you considered to have help from ChatGPT, which can be really convenient just for the structure, not for the writing?  Because if it’s handwriting, it’s going to be difficult.  But have you considered to have some help from ChatGPT?  You can scan the letter, put the letter, have an answer.

My second question – you speak, and it was very interesting, about the origin of people who send you some letter.  So they – I heard there’s Chinese.  Do you – like Chinese – from everywhere in the world, can – do you have, like, an idea of the structure, the percentage?  Is there much more are European, much more American, much more Chinese now?  

And a third question – sorry, I’m really, like, I like talking and asking question.  The third question is:  In your city, do you have a tradition, because Santa Claus is from Saint Nicholas, which is German actually, and do you have a percentage, do you know the structure of your population is how much more Catholic, much more German descendant?  Or – yeah, and I think I’m good.  Thank you.

MS ARNOLD:  So the first question regarding ChatGPT, no, that’s not a consideration here.  I think that would take away from the personalization of the elves and what we’re doing with the kind of old school tradition and wanting to keep that alive.  And Mrs. Koch, can you talk a little bit about the percentage of letters that come from the various parts of the world?  Do you have any numbers?

MS KOCH:  Not yet.  But it’s not a large number; maybe I would say 40 percent, possibly.  We have one family that loves doing that, and that’s wonderful, because it takes time.  However, I have found out in doing many, many letters that the foreign students print and write wonderful English.  (Laughter.)  And I think we should be – the Chinese and the Taiwanese send wonderful art, and you can see all the different countries and how they’re represented in the letters.

And what was the third question?

MS ARNOLD:  As far as the town population, I think asking about the percentage of – were you saying Catholicism?

MS KOCH:  Catholics.  She said something about German Catholics.

MODERATOR:  She wanted to know if it was mostly Catholic, or German, or what kind of the makeup of Santa Claus, Indiana is.

MS KOCH:  It’s very diverse right now.  It used to be all German, Lutheran or Catholic.  And there is a gated community here of about 2,500 people, and that has brought in great diversity, which is wonderful.  We have people from different countries – and California – (laughter) – moving here.  So that makes it much more – it’s more diverse than it was when I was growing up, for sure.  It was all German Catholic or possibly Lutheran mostly, Methodist, but very Germanic.  That was correct; that’s true.  Yes.  And French, because many of the people came from Alsace-Lorraine, which of course you know was inhabited by French and Germans.  So there is both – both things here.  Which is interesting.  (Laughter.)

MODERATOR:  Okay.  So again, journalists, if you have questions, please raise your virtual hand on Zoom.  I do have one pre-submitted question I wanted to ask.  We talked about the history of Santa Claus, Indiana.  The question is:  “What do you think is the future for Santa Claus, Indiana?  What does the (inaudible) Santa Claus, Indiana impact you going forward into the future?”  

MS ARNOLD:  I think the future of Santa Claus, Indiana, I think it will continue to grow and develop, but I think the roots here will remain strong.  I think people are wanting to grow the town and its offerings but keep the same quaint, wholesome —   

MS KOCH:  Yeah, very family-friendly.  I don’t think anybody in this area is striving to be a big city or to have the glimmer and glamor that is in a larger urban area.  We want to stay small and rural but definitely grow in population and grow in what we’re offering our residents and visitors.  

MODERATOR:  Okay.  And so last call for any questions from the journalists.  Again, please raise your hand virtually if you have any questions.  We have a question from Oyiza, if I’m pronouncing that right.  Oyiza, if you could unmute yourself and introduce yourself and ask a question.  

QUESTION:  Yes, hi, I’m Oyiza Adaba with Africa-Related in Nigeria.  And there are children around the world right now that are going through all sorts – I wonder if you can just take some time to speak to children around the world, especially with what is going on in the Middle East, in parts of Africa.  There are a lot of displacements.  Children don’t – that don’t have this privilege to enjoy this quaint arrangement that you have in Indiana.  And it’s very encouraging by the way, but I really do wish that we can also extend this to children around the world, especially with what’s going on?  But thank you.  

MS ARNOLD:  Well, and possibly if you all as correspondents and journalists talk about it.  I can say that I’ve been really impressed this year with how many children have said in their letters:  You can leave off a couple of my gifts but think children who don’t have what I have.  I’m amazed at how many children are saying that, which gives me hope.  I think that’s wonderful, worrying about the homeless and children who don’t have as much as we have.  I think that’s really great, and I’m happy to see that.  

I think – we will get the letters if they’re mailed to us.  My – I make a plea every year.  If you’re in Nigeria or wherever, mail them early, because right now we are, like, what, two days – that the Post Office Department – I’m sorry – it’s very slow because we have so – such a huge volume of mail.  And on Saturday, it’s just a half day, and Sunday, no day – they’re closed.  So we have to get these letters out.  And if we don’t get them early, it’s very difficult to get them to the children on time.  

And especially schools – I didn’t even mention how many schools use this as a learning project to teach their children how to write a letter, which is wonderful, and we will get packets of 30, 50 letters from children.  And we have to get all those answered, and it takes a great deal of time to do that, and so we need it early when we have volunteers.  Of course, these volunteers are people who live here.  They also want to be with their families.  They want to be traveling.  They want to be baking, cooking, having parties.  And so right now we’re in crunch time because it’s so close to Christmas – so early, early, early with everything.  

MODERATOR:  Wonderful.  And I think we have a question again from Farrah.  Farrah, if you could unmute yourself and ask a question.  

QUESTION:  Hi, there – just had a couple of other questions.  I’d be curious to know what the impact was of the pandemic on the town and, I guess, the tourism economy there.  And secondly, please correct me if I’m wrong, are there – I understand there are two other places in America called Santa Claus, is that right?  I’ve read one in Georgia and one in Arizona.  Is that correct?  And if so, does that sort of create some confusion or a bit of interstate rivalry, or what’s the situation there?  

MS KOCH:  No rivalry.  There are other Christmassy town names.  And I do believe you’re correct; there are – there is a Santa Claus, Arizona.  I’m not sure about Georgia.  I think it might be a neighborhood, but our claim to fame is that we are the only town with Santa’s name in the post office.  So we have the only Santa Claus post office in the world.  

And regarding the pandemic, I would say it definitely impacted the town of Santa Claus.  A lot of the events and activities during 2020 and even 2021 had to be revised and reimagined to continue safely and to support visitors and locals alike.  We pivoted, I think, is the magical word, and we were able to still provide experiences and continue some of our traditions.  And I know – excuse me – the letter writing was – did not slow down because of the pandemic.  

MS ARNOLD:  We moved from our small room to the American Legion building, which had a huge room, so that we could be six feet apart and wear masks.  And it was interesting; it was very interesting.  It was not as cozy and fun as it was, but we got letters answered.  And we also had to cancel – we did cancel our parade, which is a big thing in our town in December.  It’s a big event, and we draw so many people, and the floats – and of course, Santa Claus is the final person in the parade.  Many times, St. Nicholas is there and all the local bands, and of course farmers with their tractors and sometimes all kinds of animals.  But it’s a great event.  We have so much fun.  That was canceled.  Even though it was outside, it draws such a huge amount of people standing very close together that we felt it was an obligation to close that, to not have that.  So it changed it; it changed it.

MS ARNOLD:  It did – actually spurred new events.  So that year we tried a Christmas fireworks.

MS KOCH:  Yeah, that changed.  Yeah.

MS ARNOLD:  That was crazy in attendance, but everybody could watch safely from their own cars, from their own vehicles.  So we tried that in 2020 and 2021.  We also brought in food trucks so that people could have food items and be able to enjoy those outside without going into a restaurant, as that was the time where a lot of restaurants were doing takeout and pickup mainly.  So it allowed us to try a few new things that we’re still continuing on now that we’re pretty much out of that time.

MODERATOR:  All right, we have another question from Sandra from France.  Sandra.

QUESTION:  Exactly.  (Laughter.)  From (inaudible).  I have another question about – it’s the time I’m working, I’m heading a newspaper about (inaudible), which is like Variety.  The name is La lettre de l’Audiovisuel, but it’s like Variety, Hollywood Reporter, and so we are watching a lot of Christmas movie.  Did you guys already have a – like your town shooting for a Christmas movie from Hallmark?  Because to me, you are the real Santa Claus city, village in America, so did you have a – like were you in a movie or something?

MS ARNOLD:  We have —

QUESTION:  Is that something that you would like to have, maybe can help?

MS ARNOLD:  We would love to have Hallmark come and film a movie here.  They have mentioned our name as a town in Hallmark movies, but they haven’t actually filmed here before, so that can be confusing to visitors when they think they’re going to get what they saw on Hallmark and they don’t.  (Laughter.)  

But we did host HGTV.  They did a Christmas home renovation series actually in 2020 or 2021, during COVID times, when that was very top of mind, and that was an interesting project to work on.  They named a road after Mrs. Koch, so she has her own road in town, and that was part of HGTV’s gift back to the town and for all the help that they received.

MS KOCH:  Their closing was at the museum village, and it was in front of the large statue, and they made artificial snow.  And it was really exciting.  It was a great day, and they left us a couple of nutcrackers, large ones, and some Christmas trees.  So they were wonderful.  We really enjoyed having them.  They brought a lot of people to town, too, so —

MS ARNOLD:  We would love to have Hallmark, so if anybody has (inaudible) or can help us out, we would love to host Hallmark and really show off the town.

MS KOCH:  But as Melissa said – and it really – I feel this – we don’t want to be a neon flashing light town.  We want to be a wholesome, rural town, and what I love about the museum property is, like, Santa Claus sits on a mound way up high, and he’s just beautiful.  He’s concrete.  And I look out the window when I’m doing letters and see children rolling down that hill, and they just have fun, and they can come and run and play and not have to be sitting quietly or whatever.  And that’s what we want to stay: the friendly German, Germanic people that we are, and give them an experience that’s special and different, not neon lights and flashing – (laughter) – not Las Vegas.

MODERATOR:  So last call for any questions.  If you have a question, please raise your hand in the virtual Zoom room.  But seeing no questions, I will go ahead and turn it over to our wonderful briefers today to share any last closing thoughts they have with all the journalists.  So Melissa, Ms. Koch, if you have any last thoughts to share.

MS ARNOLD:  I think we’ve covered a lot.  We’re definitely a quaint, rural town, as we’ve said, and we love Christmas, we love the holidays, we love spreading joy and sharing that belief of Santa Claus with any and all.  So we’re – I put my email in the chat if anybody has any questions or wants to follow up.  If you need images or video or anything like that, any other assets, we can help get that to you, and we are very thankful that you joined today.

MS KOCH:  And I want to say that – thank you very much.  It’s wonderful being with you.  I enjoyed it.  I have a family in Belgium today.  (Laughter.)  They love to travel.  I was thinking about something, but I’m old and I forgot it – oh, I know what it is.  Somebody interviewed me the other day and asked me what’s my favorite Christmas movie.  I said I have no idea; I don’t have time to watch Christmas movies.  (Laughter.)

MS ARNOLD:  But if we can get Hallmark here, then I bet she’ll watch it.

MS KOCH:  Then we’ll watch it, yeah.

MODERATOR:  That’s your goal for the next year, your New Year’s resolution.  So I want to thank you both for joining us today, and thank you to all the journalists joining us as well.  This will end the briefing today.  Thank you so much, and get back to work on those (inaudible) letters.

MS KOCH:  Merry Christmas.  Merry Christmas, everybody.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.

U.S. Department of State

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