Named one of the world's top Christmas destinations by Forbes magazine and billing itself as "America's Christmas Hometown," Santa Claus, Indiana, could put even the most resolute grinch into the jolliest holiday spirit.
The town's original name was actually Santa Fe, which was changed in 1856 when residents requested a post office and were told another Santa Fe, Indiana, post office already existed. In their desire to keep "Santa" in the town's name, residents decided "Santa Claus" to be the next-best option.
About a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Chattanooga, Santa Claus was home to the country's first themed attraction, Santa Claus Town, which opened in 1935. That same year, a rival park — Santa Claus Park — also opened in the town, and while the park itself has closed, the 22-foot Santa statue erected for it was restored in 2011. Today it can be found next to the Santa Claus Museum, where you'll find more information on the town's interesting history. The museum is a small, nonprofit organization with varying hours, so check to be sure it's open by visiting the museum's website, santaclausmuseum.org, or by calling 812-544-2434.
What to do:
Since the town's post office is the only one in the world bearing the name Santa Claus, it becomes especially busy come Christmastime. In 1914, the town postmaster decided to start answering children's letters, and a group of volunteers calling themselves "Santa's Elves" has continued the practice every year since, ensuring that each of the thousands of children who pen a letter to St. Nick and mail it to the town receives a reply. (If you'd like to try it out, the address is P.O. Box 1, Santa Claus, Indiana, 47579.) If you're in town during December, stop in to send out your Christmas cards with a hand-stamped Santa Claus, Indiana, postmark, for which the town holds a competition among local high school students every year.
Santa's Candy Castle, once part of the old Santa Claus Town, was refurbished and reopened in 2006. It has several rooms chock full of candy, including many nostalgic varieties, with one room dedicated entirely to PEZ dispensers. Be sure to try the frozen hot chocolate.
Santa Claus is also home to what is purported to be the world's first theme park, Santa Claus Land. The park opened in 1946, but changed its name to Holiday World in 1984 with the addition of areas themed around other holidays, such as Halloween and Independence Day. Owned and operated by Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries, the park is known for its old-fashioned wooden coasters — the "Voyage" was named the No. 1 coaster in the nation by Time magazine — as well as the free drink stations located throughout the park.
Santa Claus Land of Lights, located at Lake Rudolph Campground, tells the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in a drive-thru light show. A photo with Rudolph is included in the $15-per-car cost for the 15- to 20-minute show. It's open Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights through Dec. 10, and nightly Dec. 15-30, though closed Dec. 24-25.
The first three weekends of December, the town hosts the Santa Claus Christmas Celebration with events including chestnut roasting, Christmas dinner with Santa and more. Businesses, artisans, nearly everyone gets in on the action.
Taking residential light displays to the next level, Christmas Lake Village holds its Festival of Lights Dec. 9 and 16, featuring nine miles of themed displays.
Visit santaclausind.org/events to find more details about upcoming events.
Where to eat:
Santa Claus has few dining options, but Frosty's Fun Center is a good place to go with kids to pick up a pizza in an arcade-style setting.
Where to stay:
You can stay near Holiday World at an aging facility called Santa's Lodge, but you'd be better off driving the 30 miles to French Lick, Indiana, where you'll find more chain options like Comfort Suites and Best Western, plus unique historic gems like French Lick Springs Hotel and West Baden Springs Hotel. Families will love the indoor water park at Big Splash Adventure Resort, and older visitors can enjoy golfing and a casino in French Lick.