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Hoosier ‘elves’ keep holiday tradition alive

– With Christmas weeks away, this southern Indiana town’s “elves” are once again busy answering St. Nick’s fan mail from children around the globe.

Each year, volunteers for Santa’s Elves Inc., a non-profit that pays the postage costs, answer more than 30,000 children’s letters to keep alive a nearly century-old tradition in the town about 35 miles east of Evansville.

Some of the youngsters’ letters are amusing, with children asking Santa how cold it is at the North Pole or how Rudolph is doing, said Sue Hurst, curator of the Santa Claus Museum, where the elfin letter writers gather.

Other kids show a greedy streak and demand a long list of toys, while some socially conscious young writers ask Santa to bring presents to poor children, she said.

“We get all types of letters – some happy, sad, some funny, some asking for toys, some just asking Santa questions like, ‘How do you visit all the children in one night?’ ” Hurst said.

The elves spend a few minutes, sometimes longer, writing each reply, always careful to follow a key rule intended to avoid disappointing the children: “We never promise anything,” Hurst said.

Although there has been a Santa Claus post office since 1856, it wasn’t until 1914 that the first letters were answered by the town’s postmaster, said Pat Koch, a spokeswoman for Santa’s Elves, which was founded in 1974.

Demand for the Santa replies and the town’s postmark soared, and by the 1930s the federal government was suggesting the town change its name to avoid the Christmas letter frenzy.

Residents balked and drew the support of Robert Ripley, who began featuring the town in his “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!” cartoons.

In 1939, the American Legion and another veterans group, the 40 et 8 organization, lent a hand to help with the letters – assistance that continues today along with local volunteers.

Their replies come in Christmas-themed letters and envelopes that are printed and contributed each year by the nearby Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari amusement park.

On Dec. 1, the town’s post office will begin offering its special picture postmark for the holiday.

Each December, about 500,000 pieces of Christmas mail are channeled through Santa Claus’ tiny post office, compared with 13,000 during a normal month.

Postmaster Marian Balbach said many people drive hundreds of miles to obtain the picture postmark at the post office in the Kringle Place shopping center.

Children wishing to write to St. Nick should address their letters to: Santa Claus, P.O. Box 1, Santa Claus, IN 47579.

Koch said the letters need a legible return address. Donations to help cover postage can be mailed to the same address.