Santa Claus and I have always had a bit of a tenuous relationship. As a child, I would spend the weeks before Christmas working myself into a frenzy of excitement, absorbing the essence of all things tinsel and holly. The night before Christmas, my brother, sister, and I would take turns begging my parents to “Go to bed, already,” so as to leave plenty of time for Santa to come tumbling down our dark and narrow chimney. I worshipped his sleigh, his red suit, and his eight tiny reindeer. I knew every Christmas song by the heart, especially my mother’s favorite Ray Coniff Singers, right down to their kitchy version of “Count Your Blessings.” I positively glowed Christmas. Until my parents took us to see Santa.
Perhaps it was the fact that I knew he knew all the naughty things I had done; perhaps it was simply awe of being in his presence.. Whatever the reason, I bravely stood in line, like Ralphie in the popular “A Christmas Story,” until it was my turn to perch on Santa’s lap. Like Ralphie, I froze, caught up in the swirl of crowds below me and the aura of the man in front of me. I blew it every year, and one year I’m sure I even blew it all over Santa. Maybe if my parents had taken me a few thousand miles north to Santa Claus House, I would have felt better about the whole lap thing.
Santa Claus House sits in the real North Pole. North Pole, Alaska, that is. Since 1949, the family of Con and Nellie Miller have amazed into silence hundreds of thousands of anxious children from all over the world. Santa Claus House proprietor Con Miller had for years been dressing up in an old Santa suit for nearby Fairbanks children as proprietor of his mercantile of the same name. When the “new” store opened in 1974 to mitigate the construction of the re-routed Richardson Highway, Santa Claus House had put itself on the map as the real, live home of Kris Kringle. Today, the House is part Christmas kitch and all yuletide delight, especially for kids. After all, where else can you schmooze with a few of Santa’s reindeer (when we were there, it was Blitzen taking a turn in the corral, along with Dancer and Comet), buy an ornament emblazoned with “North Pole, Alaska,” and have a peppermint cocoa in the presence of His Royal Christmas Greatness?
For yes, children, Santa always around, all year long. From Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., and on Sunday Noon-6 p.m., Santa Claus will welcome, woo, and even wow kids of all ages. Even when we visited one muggy August afternoon, Santa knew AK Kid was there, lurking fearfully behind a skinny Christmas tree. Despairing tears and/or a pants-wetting, I resigned myself to having birthed another Santa-phobiac, but Mr. Kringle, beautiful, round, twinkling-eyes-and-all, got up from his chair and somehow managed to coax my timid little boy to his knee.
Clad in traditional red pants, suspenders, and boots, and sporting a not-so-traditional Hawaiian shirt, Santa carefully and calmly placed his gloved hand upon AK Kid’s small, trembling one. “Hello, there,” said my hero. AK Kid’s eyes grew wide, and his shoulders heaved as he struggled to say something, anything, to this kind man who knew everything about him. “Take a deep breath,” said Santa. “I know it might be scary to meet me, but, listen,” he said, lowering his voice so only the two were engaged in this summertime-before-Christmas secret, “A lot of grownups are scared to meet me, too.” (Did Santa just look at me, then?)
That’s the magic of Santa Claus House. He knows, and the kids know, too, without a doubt, Santa is real. Oh, he many not be real in the sense you and I know real. I mean, really real. Letters (you’ve got to read these) adorn every spare inch of wall space at Santa Claus House; letters typed on clunky machines, letters scribbled on the backs of tablet paper, letters featuring childish drawings full of smiling children, loving parents, and Christmas trees. Some were so touching they made us cry, some so funny we laughed long and loud. All were treasured, and all were unique reminders of ourselves.
Yeah, we adults will think it’s a tourist trap, and maybe it is, to some extent. But go there, and see if you don’t leave a different sort of person, one who remembers a time when we did, really, believe.
If You Go:
Santa Claus House is located at 101 St. Nicholas Drive, North Pole, Alaska, about 12 miles from Fairbanks. (800-588-4078). Open year-round, the property features an enormous, 42-foot tall Santa Claus statue in front, a pen full of reindeer, and Santa’s sleigh right next door. Hours vary according to the season, but rest assured, Santa is there. It is free to wander the store, see Santa, and pet the reindeer. A popular “Letter From Santa” program is available for purchase, with different themes and styles. Some families have been utilizing the program for two or more generations!