Christmas in Santa Claus, Indiana
The southern Indiana community known as Santa Claus, tucked into the scenic Ohio River Valley, acquired its distinctive name in 1852. It had struggled mightily with its lack of identity and the subject came up again after a church service on Christmas Eve.
According to local legend, churchgoers stayed on for a town meeting held around a wood-burning stove in a little log church and once again deliberated over what to call their then-nameless hamlet. Eerily, in the middle of their discussions, a wintry gust blew the door open and sleigh bells were heard jingling in the distance. Excited children in the church started to exclaim that it must be Santa Claus. Although the source of the bells was never uncovered, the community did acquire the name that was to become its claim to fame.
It also answers the question as to why people head for an outdoor water park in the middle of December. It is, of course, because Santa Claus is thereabouts — and, in fact, has a festival named after him (in the town that also bears his name).
Holiday World (which incorporates Splashin’ Safari water park) is a delightfully woodsy family-run theme park with award-winning wooden roller coasters and plenty of fun places to get your thrills in a water park. It is credited as the world’s first theme park, opened in 1946 as Santa Claus Land. (Disneyland, still but a gleam in Walt Disney’s eye, opened nine years later). Mark your calendars for May 2, 2009, when the park reopens, debuting what is billed as the world’s tallest water ride, with a drop of 131 feet.
Meanwhile, Santa Claus holds court at the hamlet named after him. He is the star attraction at the Christmas in Santa Claus Festival (Dec. 13 and 14), taking part in a parade and as guest of honor at an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast. One of the favorite photo ops is posing in front of many of the village’s many Santa statues — or, better yet, having a photograph taken with Ol’ Saint Nick himself.
Visitors can enjoy a family holiday movie and concerts and browse through three Christmas craft shows. For those who enjoy seeing how folks decorate their homes, this is the weekend that visitors are invited to follow a 9-mile trail into Christmas Lake Village, where close to 500 homeowners participate in a Festival of Lights.
The tiny Santa Claus Post Office (located, predictably, at Kringle Place) opened its doors in 1856 and started to pique wide interest in 1914 when Santa Claus’s 14th postmaster, James Martin, took it upon himself to answer children’s letters. Today, the post office is flooded with holiday mail — more than 500,000 pieces every holiday season — and enlists a team of volunteers to answer children’s letters to Santa. In addition, visitors flock to the post office to get a special postmark on their holiday mail.
Opened in 2006, the Santa Claus Museum traces the history of the community and includes memorabilia (including a collection of Santa Claus figures dating back to the 19th century), artifacts and a photo gallery of celebrity visitors. It is located in the same mall as the post office and, in keeping with the holiday spirit, admission is free. During the festival, Story time with Mrs. Claus starts at 4 p.m.
Tradition meets technology at Candy Castle, where kids sit at a computer and log into the North Pole Network. Youngsters receive a secret code and enjoy meeting Santa’s elves via this interactive computer lab and its “live North Pole Webcam.” Stop here to shop from an incredible variety of candy canes and to enjoy a mug of hot chocolate, offered in 25 flavors.
Find more holiday cheer at the Rockport Christmas Festival (Dec. 6). Located about 20 miles south of Santa Claus, Rockford also offers a parade, breakfast with Santa, and a craft show. A musical celebration of Christmas features local talent performing in the Spencer County Courthouse Auditorium. A beautiful lighted Christmas star is mounted 150 feet high on a bluff overlooking the Ohio River.
If you’re traveling the Ohio River Valley before the holidays, visit the Christkindlmarkt (Nov. 15 and 16) at Ferdinand, Ind. It is a holiday market based on the tradition that dates back to Nuremberg, Germany, circa 1545. Three buildings are packed with Christmas gifts, crafts and antiques, with plenty of food, wine and music.
Also, check out the quality German-style wines at Winzerwald Winery at Bristow. The labels are whimsical — depicting a colorful nutcracker figure clad in lederhosen — but the wines are well crafted and capture awards at wine festivals. The winery is one of eight on the Uplands Wine Trail, where you’ll find a variety of holiday events during November and December.
Also in Spencer County, the St. Meinrad Archabbey offers tours at 1:30 p.m. Saturdays (with self-guided walking tours at other times). Founded in 1854 by the Abbey of Einsiedeln, Switzerland, it is one of only two archabbeys in the United States. It provides a home for more than 105 Benedictine monks. More than 12,000 students have studied at its school of theology, 3,750 becoming priests, while alumni include one cardinal, 22 bishops and 27 abbots.