North Pole, Alaska, population 2,100, fully embraces its role as the home of Santa Claus.
The roads have names like Mistletoe Lane and Kris Kringle Drive. The street lights look like candy canes and the police cars are white and green. And for overnight visitors, the Hotel North Pole offers the Santa Claus Suite, complete with a decorated tree, faux presents, greenery bedecked headboards, and stockings hung with care.
While the town motto is “where the spirit of Christmas lives year-round,” many residents work to share that spirit with children across the country and around the world.
Becoming North Pole
The history of North Pole is inextricably linked with that of its most popular business, Santa Claus House.
The place that became North Pole is part of the traditional lands of the Tanana Athabascan people. In 1944, the area was opened to homesteading, and Con and Nellie Miller were the second couple to move in. Con Miller, who frequently portrayed Santa in surrounding villages, opened Santa Claus House as a general store in 1952. The business originally had many functions. It was the area post office for 20 years, and Nellie Miller married several thousand couples in the house while serving as marriage commissioner.
The town became North Pole just a year later. It is 125 miles south of the geographical north pole; the name was a gimmick dreamed up by a local development company hoping to attract a toy manufacturer or a Santa Land amusement park. Those never materialized, but due to increased tourism from highway improvements and nearby military bases, Santa Claus House transitioned to a holiday superstore. Offering décor, toys, and apparel in a nostalgic year-round fantasyland of Christmas, it consistently ranks as one of the three biggest attractions in interior Alaska.
Paul Brown is the Operations Manager and the third generation (by marriage) of the Miller family to join the business. The physical shop is just the tip of the iceberg of their holiday empire; their behind-the-scenes work sending personalized letters from Santa ranks as the state’s largest online seller.
“It began the year the house opened, when air men from nearby Eielson Air Force Base would ask Con to write postcards to their families back home,” Brown explained. “In the last 70 years, we have mailed over two million letters to children in every country in the world.”
A Blizzard of Mail
That makes for a mighty busy post office. According to Lisa Wineland, the Postmaster of Fairbanks that oversees North Pole, they can see 5,000 letters a day just from Santa Claus House during the busy season.
Ever wonder what happens to letters addressed to “Santa Claus, the North Pole”? Hundreds of thousands of letters annually flood into the Alaskan town. Through the years, different volunteer groups of residents have responded to them, as a school, church, or community project. It took a lot of coordination, and a lot of work.
Today, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) offers a DIY option, where caregivers or teachers send a child’s Santa letter along with a response. The letter from Santa gets sent to the child with a North Pole postmark. During the holiday season, they get five hundred letters like this a day. Even in the digital age, “snail mail” is a major export from North Pole.
This September, USPS selected North Pole as host for the debut of the Holiday Elves Forever stamp. The ceremony, held at Santa Claus House, had speeches from local dignitaries and carols from the school choir. Many guests were from the local area, but not all.
“People travel from all over the country to these debuts, to get first day of issue postmarks and have speakers sign programs,” said James Boxrud with the Postal Service. “They are collector’s items.”
At least one tour bus full of philatelists — postage stamp collectors — came to North Pole, and one customer bought a thousand stamps that day.
Santa Claus, Really
I found Santa Claus while reviewing the business listing on the town of North Pole’s website. “SANTA CLAUS – NORTH POLE – ALASKA,” it said and listed his services as “Miscellaneous.” Turns out he is a Christian monk, an advocate for children’s health, and sometimes a politician. And yes, his name is legally Santa Claus.
Claus looks like his namesake, and had long been filling the holiday role for nonprofit organizations that serve children. He felt led to change his name in 2005 while planning a national Santa’s Bless the Children Tour, visiting all 50 governors to discuss the plight of vulnerable children. For him, the name has a practical purpose.
“Santa Claus is a more effective name when I contact state and federal legislators,” he said. “It’s a very powerful tool that helps me accomplish some of the stuff that I enjoy pursuing on behalf of children in dire straits.”
A couple of years later, Claus moved to North Pole to make the name have an even bigger impact.
Claus is now more likely to don his monk’s robes than the typical red holiday suit. He embraces Santa Claus as derived from the Dutch for St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, a fourth-century Christian bishop who gave dowries to poor young women and was imprisoned for his unwavering beliefs.
“I vocally support peace, because all wars are against children,” he said in our interview. “My generation left children a real challenge because of climate change.”
Claus’s political career includes serving on North Pole’s City Council and, last April, running to complete U.S. House Representative Don Young’s term after his passing. He definitely had name recognition going for him. He placed sixth out of 48 candidates in the first state-wide election implementing ranked-choice voting, which he supports.
“In North Pole, it is true that the spirit of Christmas lives year-round. It is very community oriented,” he said. “And also, nice and snowy.”
We at the Daily Yonder would like to pass on to all of our readers Santa’s blessing for the happiest of holidays: “I wish you a lifetime filled with happiness, peace, good health, prosperity, and, most of all, love — the greatest gift.”