by Diana Thornton

My 3rd great grandmother, Susan (Aegerter) Freyhofer, was born in Switzerland on Christmas Day, 1805. She died 57 years later in Santa Claus, Indiana, a town she and her husband Jacob helped found.

Susan and Jacob Freyhofer and their two young children immigrated to the US in 1834. They landed in New Orleans and made their way up the Mississippi River to Indiana where they received a land grant of 160 acres in Jackson County. They quickly built a log cabin and set to clearing the land so they could farm it. Their first child born in America was my gg grandmother Susan Freyhofer.

Another of my 3rd great grandparents John and Dora Hanning immigrated in 1839 from Germany. They, too, made their way to Indiana and settled in a rural area in Spencer County. Soon more German settlers arrived, drawn by the excellent farmland in the area. A few years later, John Hanning met Jacob Freyhofer when Jacob was passing through Spencer County and persuaded Jacob to move his family to their community in 1852.

By 1854, a town was growing, with homes, churches, a school, businesses and numerous farms in the surrounding countryside. The residents of the area, including my Hanning and Freyhofer ancestors, decided it was time to name their little town. They first tried Santa Fee but it was already taken.

According to family lore, the name Santa Claus came from John’s wife Dora:

Grandmother Hanning suggested this name for the town, and it was Grandfather Hanning’s strong, sturdy character that had much to do in naming the community. Santa Claus has become a famous center largely through his influence.

Paul Harvey, the legendary news commentator, featured Santa Claus on his “The Rest of the Story” radio show that aired Christmas Eve, 1992. As a descendant, I can’t promise that everything in his story is true, but most of it is:

Never in history did a town have so much trouble naming itself than the town of…well, that, see, that was the problem. The town didn’t have a name–not even an unofficial one. There were many suggestions, but every time somebody made a suggestion, it was discovered that some other town already had that name.

How did the folks find their way to the “nameless town”? Well, people who lived on the gently rolling hillscape of southern Indiana would simply point and say, “Over yonder is the ‘nameless town.’” So that’s exactly what they came to call it until one Friday night, late in 1852, on Christmas Eve.

And this is The Rest of the Story…

The Christmas Eve service had just concluded in the little log church, and everybody was there. [It was] as good a time as any to hold a final town meeting of the year, one citizen decided. As had often been the case through the years of town meetings since the community’s founding, there was only one order of business that night: a name for the “nameless town.”

All were gathered around the pot-bellied wood-burning stove. The circuit riding preacher who had just preached the service was there, too. He was a popular fellow—the Reverend Christian Wyttenbach. So esteemed was this minister that somebody suggested naming the town Wyttenbach, Indiana. But I think it was the reverend himself who respectfully declined; after all he didn’t even live there.

The frustrating discussion continued. Now when I mention “everyone there,” I mean everybody; children–although quiet and not participating–children were included. But then, with a chilly December gust, the door of the church blew open. It was the adults who fell silent and it was the youngsters who suddenly came to life. For beyond the picture-framed doorway was a magical scene of snowflakes winking on black velvet, and the magical sound of sleigh bells.

But whose sleigh might it be? All were present, remember–and nobody else for miles and miles around except…that’s right. And as the children ran to the doorway they excitedly shouted the name that every grownup was thinking, “Santa Claus!” they cried. “It’s Santa Claus!”

Thus one Christmas Eve, 140 years ago tonight, because of some bells that nobody’s ever been able to trace, the little nameless town received its name: Santa Claus, Indiana; and it is so named to this day. The population no longer numbers in the dozens–there are 1,200 residents now. And in a sense you might say that there are 12-hundred-and-one. For each and every Christmas season, hundreds of thousands of letters arrive in the town’s post office. Letters come from all over the world with but a single name inscribed upon them. The inscriptions are often scrawled in crayon, but the letters are sent in utmost sincerity. Of course, you know what the name is on all those envelopes, and you know why those letters arrive where they do ’cause, well, because you know The Rest of the Story.


CBS Sunday Morning did a feature on it:

The first post office in the town of Santa Claus, built 1856:

On Christmas Eve, 1864, my 2nd great grandmother Susan Freyhofer (Susan and Jacob’s daughter) married Theodore Hanning (John and Dora’s son) in Santa Claus, Indiana. My great grandmother Addie Hanning was born there in 1875.

Theodore and Susan (Freyhofer) Hanning. Tintype. (Married Dec. 1864). I wonder what the paper is that she is holding. Notice no wedding rings.

Theo was appointed postmaster in 1871. The post office was finally formally recognized in 1895, making it the one and only official post office in the world bearing the name of Santa Claus.

So if you ever wrote a letter to Santa when you were a child, now you know where your letter went. I don’t think it spoils the magic at all to learn it didn’t end up at the North Pole.

Santa Claus, Indiana today

The town has since morphed into an amusement park centered around Christmas.

The whole town’s economy revolves around Christmas year ‘round. It has become known as “America’s Christmas Hometown,” and now features street names like Tinsel, Snowball, Garland and Reindeer Run. And right across the road from the old Hanning farm is now Holiday World Theme Park & Splashin’ Safari Water Park with roller coasters and water rides.

Christmas Lake Village now sits where the large lower right Hanning property (in orange) was on this overlay of their properties onto Google Map:

“Christmas Lake Village is a family oriented gated community located in southern Indiana, on the south side of the small town of Santa Claus, Indiana. The community includes over 879 homes, with three lakes available to home and lot owners and their guests only.  Christmas Lake, the largest lake at 200 acres, is a sports lake, with fishing, swimming, skiing, tubing and sailing.”

The tiny town that wrote letters back to children has evolved into a huge amusement park centered around everything Christmas.

Can you believe it: Robert L. Ripley, of Believe It Or Not fame, poses beside what was believed to be the largest Christmas card in the world on Dec. 23, 1931:

From that point forward, the Santa Claus Post Office would be known worldwide as Santa’s Post Office and was often crushed with enormous amounts of mail. It took an army of volunteers spearheaded by Santa Jim Yellig to ensure each and every one got a letter back. To this day, the tradition of townspeople and volunteers helping answer thousands of letters to Santa from around the globe carries on today.

In the 1930s, famous cartoonist Robert Ripley drew four cartoon sketches featuring items of interest in Spencer County, Indiana. In one cartoon, for example, he told readers about the only post office in the country with the Santa Claus name. Once the cartoon sketch was published, the town of Santa Claus received more letters to Santa than ever before.

“We truly read every single letter,” and specific responses are sent in each reply. The nonprofit organization relies on donations to fund the expenses of postage and stationery, and on a large group of volunteers to respond to the letters and address and cancel each one by hand:

In order to guarantee a response, letters must be received by Dec. 18.
Santa’s address is:

Santa Claus
P.O. Box 1
Santa Claus, IN 47579

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