A Town Called Santa Claus

Today, I offer you season’s greetings. I’m taking you on a winding road through the history of Santa Claus, the history of the towns of Santa Claus, and the history of America’s first theme park. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

Credits: Podcast cover background photo is by 4045 on freepik.com. Image of Santa billboard from Santa Claus, AZ is public domain. Theme music is from “Aerobatics in Slow Motion” by TeknoAXE. Incidental music includes “Jingle Bells (Calm)”, “Deck the Halls (A)”, “Deck the Halls (B)” by Kevin Macleod / incompetech.com; and “We Three Kings” by Alexander Nakarada (filmmusic.io). Effects all via freesound.org: “Jingle Bells” by JarredGibb (CC0); “Jingle Bells” by nfrae (CC0); “Arizona Walking” by kvgarlic (CC0); “Howling Wind in Chimney” by Maurice JK (CC by SA); “Merry Christmas” by metaepitome (CC0); and “Merry Christmas” by maestroalf (CC0).

The First Theme Park?

When you’re researching anything, an easy question to ask is, what was the first? What was the first fast food restaurant? (White Castle, 1921) What was the first interstate highway in the US? (A complicated answer, but either a portion of what is now I-70 in Missouri, which had the first contract signed in 1956; a portion of I-70 in Kansas for being the first to actually start paving in 1956; or part of I-70 in Pennsylvania, as it was opened as a highway in 1940 and later incorporated into the interstate system.

To bring it around to The Abandoned Carousel, what was the first theme park? 

Not the first amusement park, to be clear. Let’s draw some lines with terminology. Amusement parks in the US go back a century and a half, at the least, with trolley parks in the middle of the 19th century considered to be some of the first true amusement parks in the US. Lake Compounce in Connecticut is said to be the oldest continuously operating park in the US, opened in 1846. The earliest amusement park in the world still in operation is called Bakken, located near Copenhagen, Denmark, and said to have opened in 1583. But these are “just” amusement parks – places where visitors are amused, with rides and leisure activities and so on.

Bakken entry, the oldest continuously operating amusement park in the world. Image: Erkan, [license CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

A theme park is a horse of a slightly different color – an amusement park, but with a theme or themed area to organize it. Society in general popularly likes to point to Disneyland and the enormous influence Walt Disney’s first park had on the theme park concept, but as I mentioned in the last episode – theme parks existed before Disneyland. And that’s what I’m going to talk about today – the first theme park in the US. Coincidentally, several of the first theme parks had Santa Claus as a theme. So seasons greetings to everyone here in the end of 2019 – let’s talk about the history of Santa Claus and a few of his homes in the US.

Christmas and Santa Claus

What’s the deal with Santa Claus, after all, if we’re going to talk about him a lot today?

Santa as we know him today is an amalgamation of the 4th century saint, Saint Nicholas; the British Father Christmas; the Dutch Sinterklaas; and the Germanic god Woden, associated with Yule. He is associated with the holiday of Christmas.

Christmas as a holiday has meant a lot of different things throughout the years. I’ll only touch on this briefly here. We have the obvious association of December 25, considered the birthday of Jesus Christ in Christian religions. In the Roman calendar, December 25th was also the date of the winter solstice. The medieval calendar was dominated by Christmas-related holidays, early versions of Advent and the Twelve Days of Christmas known today. The Middle Ages saw an association of Christmas with lewdness, debauchery, and parties. The Puritans and the Pilgrims actually banned Christmas in the mid-1600s for being too strongly associated with drunkenness. In response, the churches called for the holiday to be celebrated in a more devout and religious fashion. 

From the 1800s onward, public perception of Christmas began to be re-shaped as a time for family and gift-giving. This was popularized by Charles Dickens’ 1843 A Christmas Carol, which created or combined much of what we now consider a Christmas celebration. It’s been referred to as the “carol philosophy”, promoting goodwill towards all men, values that could be espoused by both religious and secular alike. By 1870, the Puritan attitudes had shifted, and Christmas was declared an official US holiday.

1843 first edition title page of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

Santa Claus’s Origins

Today, of course, it can be argued that Christmas, and particularly Santa Claus, are largely commercial juggernauts more than anything.

As the North American colonies developed throughout the late 1700s and early 1800s, his familiar accoutrements were established. Rivington’s Gazette was the first American paper to establish the name Santa Claus, back in 1773. Santa was immortalized in print, with poems and story books, and of course, The Night Before Christmas, published in 1823. 

Washington Irving’s 1809 parody of New York culture was the first to take the traditional bishop dress (derived from St. Nicholas) away and give Santa a pipe and a winter coat. 

Thomas Nast and Santa Claus

But it was a political cartoonist during the Civil War that gave us the modern image of Santa Claus, the man we think of today. 

Thomas Nast was a Bavarian-born immigrant who came to America as a child. He did poorly at most school subjects, but showed an early passion for drawing. By the age of 18, with several years of artistic study under his belt, his drawings first appeared in the magazine Harper’s Weekly. 

He had a long history with that magazine, and has come to be known as the “father of the American cartoon”. He advocated for the abolition of slavery and opposed racial segregation. He also created the modern political symbol for the Republican party (the elephant). His cartoons were instrumental in public sentiment for the 1860s elections of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, and are said to be responsible for the election of Grover Cleveland, the first Democrat elected after almost thirty years of Republicans. “In the words of the artist’s grandson, Thomas Nast St Hill, “it was generally conceded that Nast’s support won Cleveland the small margin by which he was elected. In this his last national political campaign, Nast had, in fact, ‘made a president’.””

And amongst his list of credentials, he created the modern image of Santa Claus, originally used for political commentary.

The Christmas issue of Harper’s Weekly for the 1862-1863 season was published in January of 1863. It was the middle of the Civil War, the year of the battles of Shiloh, Manassas, and Antietam; it was a year with the Union experiencing both extreme trial and intense hope. The nation was divided by Civil War, and the celebration of Christmas brought conflicting emotions. 

Santa Claus in Camp 1863, by Thomas Nast. Image: Public Domain via metmuseum.org

Nast drew several images, including the cover image. It was titled “Santa Claus at Camp”. His drawing depicted a Santa Claus figure, arriving by sleigh in a Union army camp to distribute gifts and good cheer. His Santa is shown in an American flag inspired outfit – stars on top, stripes on the bottom, everything fur trimmed, with a pointy hat. It was originally political commentary or even pro-Union propaganda. Lincoln reportedly once said that NAst’s images, politicizing Santa, were “”the best recruiting sergeant the North ever had””. Despite the political roots, Nast’s images set the seeds for today’s Santa. 

Nast was reportedly also responsible for fixing Santa’s home address as the “North Pole”. This was done after the Civil War, and was reportedly done “so no nation can claim him as their own”, for propaganda, as Nast himself had done.

He continued drawing Santa, publishing at least 33 Santa images for Harper’s Weekly over his time there. His 1881 image “Merry Old Santa Claus” is probably his most famous, showing a twinkly-eyed bearded man, dressed all in red, clutching bundles of toys. But like the Santa Claus at Camp image, this is more political commentary, actually relating to the government’s indecisiveness over raising the wages of the military. It’s odd and fascinating that political cartoons could shape our cultural images so strongly.

Thomas Nast’s Merry Old Santa Claus, from an 1800s Harpers Weekly. Public domain.

20th Century Santa

In the 20th century, literature and promotional images continued to shape and refine our images of the jolly old man. L. Frank Baum, the very same author who penned The Wizard of Oz series, actually wrote a book about Santa in 1902, called The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. This book established much of the Santa mythology. And as an interesting sidebar, Santa has a small cameo – he appears in The Road to Oz, one of the sequels to Wizard of Oz.

Even more influential were yet more promotional images. 

As we’ve already discussed, Santa was shaped by political commentary, so it’s not surprising he moved on to the world of commercial promotion through the late 1800s and early 1900s. His image, however, was not consistent from artist to artist. Much relied on the famous poem, the line “a little old driver, so lively and quick”, with many interpretations. Images were tweaked and edited, still not the consistent idea of Santa from our modern times. Sometimes Santa was tall and thin, sometimes he was elven, and so on. 

This time, they were the promotional campaigns of that beverage giant, Coca-Cola.  In the 1930s, they were looking for a new way to increase soda sales during the winter, with the slogan, “Thirst Knows No Season.” Enter stage left: Haddon H. Sundblom. 

Sundblom worked for Coke, and was assigned to draw a new Santa for the Coca-Cola company, then. He came up with a modern image of Santa – friendly, warm, pleasant, plump. He was a cheerful, rotund man with white hair and a red suit, red cheeks, and a jolly affect. Sundblom’s first ads with new Santa debuted in 1931.

They were a hit, to say the least. Coke still sometimes uses Sundblom’s original art in their ads to this day. And not only is it Coke. After the 1931 ads, this was the image of Santa that was codified in cultural imagination. No longer were there interpretations of Santa, tall and thin, elven, etc. No, Sundblom’s characterization of Santa became the ideal image of the legend that still carries on today. 

Charles Howard’s Santa Claus

People, of course, had dressed up as Santa as far back as the legend goes. Early costumed Santas were often used around the holiday season to ring bells and solicit monetary donations for the poor. It’s said that the first department store Santa appeared in 1890, when a man in Brockton, Massachusetts named James Edgar dressed as Thomas Nast’s jolly Santa for the delight of children in the store. 

Said a man who saw Edgar as a child: You just can’t imagine what it was like. I remember walking down an aisle and, all of a sudden, I saw Santa Claus. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and then Santa came up and started talking to me. It was a dream come true.”

By the turn of the century, the idea had caught on and the department store Santa was a common figure, so much so that some papers of the time issued cries for “only one Santa Claus per town”.

Charles Howard

The big name in the Santa Claus field, as I’ve learned, was a guy named Charles Howard, apparently quite well known in the Albion area, some 60 miles north of Buffalo.

Charles Howard was born in Albion, NY around the turn of the century, in 1896. He was a farmer and a toymaker and a secretary for the county fair association. Some describe him as having a flair for the dramatic. As a child, his mother sewed him a suit, a Santa Claus suit, so that Howard could play the role of Santa as “a short fat boy”. He continued with the role as he got older, making new suits as he grew. 

Somewhere in the early 1930s, he suggested that a local furniture store hire him to play the role of Santa while making toys in the front window during the holiday season. Eventually, he moved to the big city, 35 miles from Albion in Rochester, NY, where the owner reportedly took one look at Howard dressed in his suit and asked him “when can you start?” 

The popular story of Howard realizing the importance of Santa, immortalized by Howard himself, goes as follows. “One morning a little girl came in and watched him work. She stood there for some time before she ventured closer. Then a step at a time she walked up to him and very timidly asked, ‘Santa, will you promise me something?’ Santa looked at the child and said, ‘What is it you want me to promise?’ He had already learned that promises sometimes meant heartaches. He did not want to make any mistakes. However this child seemed so sincere, so earnest, he took her little hand in his. The child drew closer, looked up into his face with all the love and trust that a five year old could and whispered, ‘Will you promise me you will never shave?’”  

This triggered a curiosity for Howard – if Santa meant so much to one, he must mean so much to many. “Who was this old fellow who meant so much to the children? Where did he come from? What did he stand for? Why did he wear that red suit? Why was it trimmed with white fur? Why this? And why that?

At the same time, in his regular life, Howard was a traveling toy salesman. He saw many Santas throughout his travels, and reportedly “frowned on the unkempt costumes and lack of child psychology displayed by many department store Santas”. So in 1937, Howard established the Santa Claus School.

Santa Claus School

Charles Howard’s first class was a single student, but as he raised tuition, attendance grew at his Santa Claus school. He held classes on his farm, offering lessons on “psychology, costuming, make-up, whisker grooming, voice modulation, the history and legend of St. Nicholas and learning the correct way to “ho-ho-ho.””. It was Howard’s opinion that being Santa was about what was in your heart and head, not about the girth of your belly. 

He also developed a line of Santa Claus suits. They were fancier than the standard costume at the time, but as Howard said, “worthy of the character as we knew him”. Students at his school flocked to the suits, and took in the lessons. The details of being Santa were important, and Howard was reportedly a stickler for them. “How the suit should lay on you. How your beard should be; it had to be the right shape and the right length. And how your glasses should look … everything had to be perfect. He wanted every [Santa] to be as close as possible to each other.”

Santa Claus, Indiana

We’ll get back to Charles Howard and Albion in a little while. 

For now, let’s turn our attention away from New York and look down south some, to a small town in Indiana. We’ve got to turn our clocks back, too.

The year, as it goes, was 1855. 

A small town in Indiana was working on establishing a post office. They were already known as Santa Fe (pronounced ‘fee’, apparently). The trouble was, there was already another town in Indiana by that name. A meeting was held to pick a new name. Legend has many versions of the story after that point. Some say the wind blew the door open and with it a Santa Claus, barging into the meeting. Some say a child heard a passing sound of jingle bells and exclaimed “Santa Claus!”. Some say it was the fact that the meeting was held on Christmas Eve.

Whichever story you believe, all are certain to be fanciful versions of the true story, which we’ll never know. What we can know is that in 1856, the post office granted the town the official name of Santa Claus, Indiana. 

Well, this was the first time that there was a town by this name in the US. So the post office started sending some of the children’s letters there, the ones addressed to Santa Claus. It became this huge barrage of mail in the holiday season. Since at least 1914, various groups of people began answering the children’s letters that were sent to Santa, both nationally and locally. 

The town began to attract national attention in 1929, when the post office in Santa Claus was featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! cartoon strip. And then we enter the 1930s.

1930s: A Big Decade in Santa Claus Operations

The 1930s were a big decade in Santa Claus operations here in the US, away from the North Pole, with a lot of Santa-related things happening simultaneously. On a socio-political front, the recovery from the Great Depression was beginning, with FDR’s First New Deal alphabet soup agencies being put into place. And big changes were happening all over – Route 66 was being built, among many other events not relevant to the show. Perhaps the attitude was one looking for hope and light. 

Santa Claus, IN in the 1930s

The 30s were a big time for the small town of Santa Claus, IN. 

Santa’s Candy Castle

We start with an entrepreneur by the name of Milt Harris. The tale goes that he looked around the town of Santa Claus and saw no Santa. The big guy wasn’t anywhere to be found. So Harris began creating the first true tourist attraction in Santa Claus, apparently in conjunction with the town postmaster James Martin. First, though, he leased nearly all of the land in and around the town – something like 1000 acres. And he began securing sponsorships from various business entities.

His attraction, Santa’s Candy Castle, was dedicated in December of 1935. It was sponsored by Curtiss Candy Company, the inventor of the Butterfinger and the Baby Ruth candy bars. Today,  they’re unsurprisingly a Nestle subsidiary. Sandy’s Candy Castle was the first tourist attraction in the town of Santa Claus, and by some accounts, the first themed attraction in the US, although that seems an unlikely claim, hard to prove.

Santa’s Candy Castle was a red brick building shaped like an actual castle, with a crenellated tower, turret, and rotunda. The next year, new attractions were added, and collectively, they were called Santa Claus Town. The Toy Village was incredibly popular, with multiple fairytale-themed buildings, each sponsored by a national toy manufacturer. This was reportedly quite popular, with children able to play with all of the hot new toys they’d heard about, for free. As the years rolled on, Harris reportedly managed to negotiate a sweet deal. For a period of time, retailers (including Marshall Fields) would arrange for toys purchased in Chicago to be shipped from the Santa Claus post office in Indiana, with that official Santa Claus postmark. 

Santa’s Workshop was also added, where children could watch a Santa Claus making wooden toys. (Though our friend Charles Howard was a Santa who could actually make wooden toys, it doesn’t appear that he performed the role at the Candy Castle, though that parallel would’ve been delightful.)

The Candy Castle was a success, in no small part because it was a free or cheap attraction to provide entertainment for kids during and after the Great Depression. 

Martin and Yellig: Making Dreams Come True

Now, as I mentioned earlier, the town postmaster, James Martin, was pretty heavily involved in all of this, because as town postmaster, he had his finger in the pie, so to speak. He noted the increased volume of letters being sent by children to “Santa Claus” around the holidays, and he took it upon himself to begin answering the letters. (This was a not insignificant amount of mail. In the 1940s, the post office reportedly handled 1.5 million pieces of mail, and in the 1950s, a newspaper article noted that the park handled over 4 million pieces of mail during the Christmas season each year. A 2014 article, though, has revised this number down to half a million pieces per year, and a 2017 article indicates the number is down around 200,000.)

Martin had a friend, a guy named Jim Yellig. Born Raymond Joseph, but known to his friends as Jim, Yellig was another guy with a Santa association from early on. While he was serving in the Navy during the first World War, his ship was docked in Brooklyn, NY, and the crew was throwing a Christmas party for underprivileged children. Yellig was chosen to play Santa Claus. The story goes that he was apparently so touched by the children’s happiness at seeing “Santa” that he prayed “If you get me through this war, Lord, I will forever be Santa Claus.”

Yellig opened a restaurant called The Chateau in Mariah Hill, Indiana, a few miles north of Santa Claus, Indiana. He began driving to Santa Claus to visit his friend Martin, the postmaster, and soon after, Martin enlisted Yellig’s help in responding to the children’s Christmas letters. By 1935, Yellig formed the Santa Claus American Legion Post in order to assist with the letters as Santa’s helpers, and he began dressing up as Santa and making appearances around the town of Santa Claus, including at Santa’s Candy Castle. He actually took a class from Charles Howard’s Santa Claus School. Held at Santa’s Candy Castle in 1938, this was the only time these two incredibly famous Santas were known to have met. (A picture of this meeting can be found here.) From this point, Yellig began being known as “The Real Santa from Santa Claus”.

A Tale of the Santa Claus Statue

At the same time that Yellig was coming onto the scene, Harris’ plans for the Candy Castle caught the attention of another entrepreneur, reportedly Harris’ arch-rival, a guy named Carl Barrett. Now, Barrett decided that he didn’t like Harris’ “materialism”, and so Barrett began planning his own attraction, called “Santa Claus Park”, in direct competition with Harris, just down the road, less than half a mile away.

On Christmas Day 1935, just days after Harris’ Candy Castle opened, Barrett dedicated a 22-ft tall statue of Santa, erected on the highest hill in the town. He claimed it was paid for by the people, that it was built on the spot where a meteor had landed and therefore was divinely inspired, and that the statue was made out of granite. At least one of those claims later was revealed to be false.

Barrett’s plans were just as big as Harris’. Barrett wanted to make his Santa Claus Park a world shrine, a children’s dream paradise with log cabins, a giant doll house, and an ice village. It never moved forward, however, as in January, Harris sued Barrett, essentially derailing both their grand plans. 

Lawsuits went back and forth, mostly regarding land ownership, and even made it as high up as the Indiana Supreme Court. They were battling over the right to Santa. Harris and Martin were able to continue expanding Santa Claus Town due to their sponsor partnerships, but Barrett’s more principled “of the people” stance relied solely on personal donations due to his spectacular Santa.

But the thing was, people began to notice the statue didn’t look so great. In fact, it had started cracking and crumbling. And obviously, granite sculptures don’t do that. As it turns out, the statue was made out of concrete, and Barrett had lied. This obviously didn’t sit well with the townsfolk. Unfortunately, war broke out, World War II, more than just a petty squabble between business rivals. Things grew quiet in Santa Claus, IN, and the attractions there, especially Barrett’s Santa Claus Park, fell into disrepair and neglect.   

Santa Claus Statue at Santa Claus Land (though not the one discussed in this section) (vintage postcard, public domain via Wikipedia)

Santa Claus, AZ and Santa Claus, GA

Let’s step back in time a bit, and interrogate something I mentioned earlier. 

Now, apparently, by 1928, the US post office supposedly decided that there would be no other post office with the name of “Santa Claus” due to the influx of holiday mail and the staffing problems it caused over in Indiana. This is an unsubstantiated fact from Wikipedia, but it does appear to be technically accurate. There is only one post office in a town named Santa Claus, and that’s Santa Claus, IN. But there are two other towns by this name: one in AZ, and one in GA. 

Santa Claus, GA

I’ll discuss the latter first. Established in 1941, Santa Claus, GA is one of those cute little small American towns. Located a few miles from Vidalia (home of the onion by the same name), the town of Santa Claus, GA is tiny, with only a couple hundred people. It’s quaint, with holiday-themed street names, a Santa Claus mailbox (but not a post office!), and an oversized Santa statue that people can pose for pictures by. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the place for the purposes of our podcast – the town was reportedly named in an effort to drive traffic to local pecan farms. It’s too small for any fancy restaurants or attractions beyond the name, but it’s still there.

Santa Claus, AZ

Now, let’s get to Santa Claus, AZ. Santa Claus, in Arizona? Yup.

I grew up in the Arizona desert myself, and the notion of a Santa Claus town there has tickled my funny bone since I first heard about it. There’s just something so absurd about trying to focus on Santa and icicles and snow when you’re surrounded by creosote and tiny lizards and endless brown desert dirt, and don’t even own a winter coat. 

Santa Claus, AZ was the brainchild of a realtor named Ninon (sometimes spelled Nina) Talbot who was born in 1888. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to focus on a woman for part of this podcast, finally. 

The famous sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein had nothing but praise for Talbot, describing her thusly: “In her own field, she was an artist equal to Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare.” No, this was not the kind of caliber of person I was expecting when I set out to shape a holiday episode of a podcast about abandoned theme parks and attractions.

Talbot promoted herself as the biggest real estate agent in California, a fun play on words since she also was apparently over 300 pounds at the time. “The Biggest in the Business!” was her slogan, and thank goodness, we’ve got a person who has a sense of humor. Talbot and her husband moved from Los Angeles to Kingman (AZ) in the late 1920s or early 1930s, with the goal of selling land or setting up a resort or otherwise making some money. Kingman was a hub of sorts, functioning as the big city to service all the small mining towns that littered the hills. Too, it attracted folks stopping off old Route 66, the Mother Road.

Talbot established herself with a hotel first, called the Kit Carson Guest House, located right in the heart of Kingman at the intersection of what is now I-40 and US 93. Here she honed her skills in charisma and cooking, enticing guests. Said a person who knew her at the time “She knew how to treat people. She could sell you anything you didn’t even want.”

After a few years, Talbot sold the Kit Carson Guest House, with a new profitable venture in mind. She purchased 80 acres of land, some 14 miles north of the town of Kingman. (That’s probably meaningless to non-locals – the town in question is in the northwest section of the state, about an hour and a half south from Las Vegas, three and a half hours north of Phoenix.) 

The town of Santa Claus, with the obvious theming implied by the name, was officially incorporated in 1937.

She called it Santa Claus as a promotion, as a way to attract folks to the town to buy the 1-acre plots of land she was selling surrounding it, called Santa Claus Acres. Spoiler alert: it never really worked, and it’s generally accepted that the only people who actually lived in the town were the workers at the various town attractions.

Hoover Dam (Boulder Dam)

You might be asking yourself, though, why someone would think it was a good or profitable idea to try and sell land up in this remote area of the state, and to have it make sense, I need to tell you about what else was going on in AZ at the time. 

In the early 1900s through the 1920s, it was settled that a dam on the Colorado River would provide flood control, irrigation water, and hydroelectric power generation for a growing number of people occupying these desert towns. Additionally, it would allow US 93 to connect Arizona and Las Vegas, instead of the ferry boat in use prior. President Coolidge authorized the Boulder Canyon Project Act in December of 1928, and construction began in 1931 on one of America’s “Seven Modern Engineering Wonders”. 

Suddenly, tens of thousands of workers were moving into the area to begin building the massive dam, many living in the model city of Boulder City, Nevada. Not only that, but the construction of the dam was on such a huge scale that it became a tourist attraction before it was completed in 1936, and after. Suddenly there was this huge new audience driving past to see the Hoover Dam (originally called the Boulder Dam). 

Talbot was on to something.

Santa Claus AZ as an Attraction

At the time, drivers still expected to be surprised around every bend of the road. They wanted to have a great time, and not make great time, as the saying goes. Or perhaps didn’t have a choice – this was the age before the implementation of the interstate highway system (remember the beginning of the episode? It always ties in somehow!).  Thus, the proliferation and success of roadside attractions, corridors with wild theming and over the top names to entice drivers to stop. (Remember Prehistoric Forest in Irish Hills, MI, back in episode 4 of TAC?) It didn’t matter if the attraction itself was makeshift, a bit garish, and something of a let-down. It was the idea that mattered.

Vintage advertising for the town of Santa Claus, AZ. Image: public domain.

Santa Claus, AZ was one of these, enticing visitors as they drove to and from Vegas, Hoover Dam, Kingman, Phoenix, and so on.

See, while people didn’t actually want to live there, Talbot managed to create a fun roadside attraction nonetheless. Everything had a Santa theme or a North Pole theme, with candy-cane striped buildings and green roofs. It kind of had a Swiss chalet feeling, which was certainly startling in the desert (especially back in the day, it was a lot of adobe and cheap wood, not Swiss chalets with gingerbread trim). 

Talbot called her town “The Pride of the Desert”, and it was said that in its heyday, Santa Claus could rival anything else along old Route 66. (Only back then, it was new: Route 66 began paving in 1931.) Talbot’s charisma and excellent home cooking were perfect bedfellows for the incongruous theming at this otherwise lonely desert gas stop.

As famed writer Robert Heinlein, known for Starship Troopers among others, wrote of the town in his 1950 story “Cliff and the Calories”, as it arose from the “grimmest desert in the world”. “You know what most desert gas stations look like — put together out of odds and ends. Here was a beautiful fairytale cottage with wavy candy stripes in the shingles. It had a broad brick chimney — and Santa Claus was about to climb down the chimney! Between the station and the cottage were two incredible little dolls’ houses. One was marked Cinderella’s House, and Mistress Mary Quite Contrary was making the garden grow. The other one needed no sign: the Three Little Pigs, and the Big Bad Wolf was stuck in its’ chimney.

Vintage image of Santa Claus, AZ attractions: Cinderella’s Doll House and House of the Third Little Pig. Public domain.

The centerpiece building was named the Santa Claus Inn. Though some retellings of the town’s story indicate this was solely a renamed Kit Carson Guest House, this was a brand new building, designed by Talbot’s husband and built by local Kingsman contractor W. J. Zinck. In addition to the holiday decoration and prominent Santa Claus, a Christmas tree too stood outside (the building was later renamed the Christmas Tree Inn). 

Inside, the restaurant was decorated with nursery rhyme paintings from a former Disney animator, Walter Winsett. Breakfast was $0.75, about $13 in today’s money; lunch $1; and dinner $1.50. The restaurant was famed for its Chicken a la North Pole and Rum Pie a la Kris Kringle. Talbot dressed as Mrs. Claus, and brought her vivacious energy to the task at hand. “Any known or asked-for dish or delicacy asked for will be served. The everyday routine provision of ordinary food is not the policy of this cage,” she once said. Year round, she served five course meals every day. A historical postcard shows a sample menu: olives, celery, iceberg; fruit or shrimp cocktail; tomato or chicken soup; chicken, lamb chops, or filet mignon; sherbet; salad; multiple desserts like ice cream, pie, or cake; and coffee and mints. All, of course, with appropriately holiday-themed names. 

Talbot’s cooking brought some modicum of fame to the attraction. Famed food critic Duncan Hines (now best known for the cake mixes bearing his name) made early Zagat-type guides of good restaurants across the country for his friends – an essential at a time prior to GPS, cell phone data, or the internet. One of his recommendations was the Santa Claus Inn, which in addition to good food offered a moderately air-conditioned space through the use of swamp coolers, a relatively new technology at the time. Hines considered the Santa Claus Inn to be one of the best places to eat in Arizona, and even included her rum pie recipe in one of his cookbooks. “Perhaps the best rum pie you ever ate, chicken a la North Pole and lots of other unusual things.”

Other “attractions” included the tram shaped into a train, called “Santa Claus Arizona Express” with the “locomotive” called Old 12-25. A donkey wandered the grounds. Inside the two small cottages, nursery rhyme dioramas amused the children.

And of course, the special postbox. Although there was never an actual post office, a mailbox was available, with a special postmark – “Santa Claus, Arizona, via Kingman”. Talbot responded to every child’s Christmas letter. They also sent postcards to every visitor who stopped, whether for gas or food, reminding them to come back. 

The 30s through 50s in Santa Claus, AZ were a magical time.

Christmas Park, NY

We return to Albion, NY after the war, where our friend, Santa legend Charles Howard, had established his Santa Claus School. It ran for two months, in October and November, of each year. Howard continued to busy himself in the Santa Claus field. He served as Macy’s Santa-in-chief and reported was Santa in the first nationally televised Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. He continued this appearance for the next 17 years, and even served as a Santa consultant for 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street”.

Locally to Albion, Howard decided to expand his Santa Claus School with an attraction for the children, as well. It was called “Christmas Park”, and it was located right on his farm, where the school itself was located. 

In comparison with any true theme park, this is honestly closer to a playground with a theme, as honestly most summer festivals in my town have more rides and attractions today. Nonetheless, it was a draw for people of the time, when America was still recovering from the war and traveling locally. 

“Christmas Park” had a themed playground, a petting farm with goats and real reindeer, a wishing well, something called “Santa’s Gold Mine” (perhaps a pan for gold type attraction), a toy and gift shop, and a diesel-operated miniature train called “The Railmaster” that was memorable for going through a tunnel. Here’s a link to photos of the park in operation. Howard reportedly had a collection of antique sleighs placed throughout the park for theming purposes, as well. There was also a “Christmas Tree” ride, a specially made version of the classic Allan Herschell helicopter ride; instead of helicopters, the ride buggies were themed as Christmas ornaments. Inside the various barns and outbuildings, there were Christmas-themed displays, fake snow, and a constant stream of Christmas music.

The park opened in 1953, with a short 13-week summer season.

In later years, the park was open year round. According to accounts online from people who visited the park as children, there was no trouble believing in Santa Claus, because they lived in the same town and could see him anytime! 

Santa Claus Land: America’s First Theme Park

Back in Santa Claus, IN, the post-war landscape saw a lot of run-down attractions. A local businessman named Louis Koch entered the scene, looking for a retirement project. He and his wife had nine children, and loved the holidays. He thought the town of Santa Claus, with that wonderful name, needed more attractions that appealed to children, especially ones that featured Santa himself. In the early 40s, then, he purchased some lots of land in Santa Claus. The war postponed development on his attraction, and the family was able to break ground in 1945. 

The attraction was christened as “Santa Claus Land”, and it opened in August of 1946. And without much fanfare at all, I present to you the recognized first theme park in the US. That’s right, Koch’s little retirement project,“Santa Claus Land”, is considered America’s first theme park. 

It started out small, a sort of family business that Koch ran with his son Bill. Originally, the park had no entrance cost. It featured toy displays, Santa’s toy shop, a restaurant with a Bavarian village theme, and a few children’s rides, including the “Santa Claus Land Railroad”, a miniature train ride that went through Mother Goose-themed displays. And of course, there was Santa, portrayed by the legendary Jim Yellig who we talked about a little while ago, the so-called Real Santa Claus from Santa Claus.

Aerial image of Santa Claus Land (now Holiday World) – public domain via wikipedia / Holiday World.

Not only that, but the Santa Claus post office moved that same year, to a new building on the property of the Santa Claus Land park, when the former building was reported in bad condition. The original building itself was also moved and restored, renamed as House of Dolls, a doll exhibit.

1955 at Santa Claus Land – (l to r) Jim Yellig as Santa, Ronald Reagan, Jim Koch – public domain via wikipedia / Holiday World.

Bill Koch, though initially pessimistic about the park’s chances for success, was buoyed by the first few years of operation, and he took over from his father. He expanded the park, adding a ride area (“Rudolph’s Reindeer Ranch”), the first Jeep-go-round ever manufactured (in 1947), and in 1948, a deer farm with a few of Santa’s reindeer. There were “educated animals” like the Fire Chief Rabbit and the Piano Playing Duck. There was a wax museum, called Hall of Famous Americans. 

The 1946 Christmas Room Restaurant was an incredibly popular “attraction” in the early years, like the Knotts’ serving chicken dinners that attracted long lines. Bill Koch was quoted as saying that their business in the early years was built on those chicken dinners.

The Santa Claus Land Railroad, going past Mother Goose scenery. Public domain image via Oparalyzerx / wikipedia.

In 1952, the Koch family put the park up for sale, with quite a few strings attached. The family was worried about the effect of managing the park on the Sr. Koch’s health. However, at the same time, they did not want to see the park commercialized. Reportedly, many of the townsfolk and park workers were opposed to the sale. Jim Yellig, said to have been Santa to more children than anyone else in the world, was quoted as saying “I hope it’s never sold. I’d be lost without this job. I love it so much.”

After a year on the market, the Koch family decided to retain ownership of the park. There had been several interested buyers, but none were willing to abide with the requirements on non-commercialization, so the decision was made to keep it within the family. 

By 1955, the park began charging admission: $0.50 for adults, kids free. A 1960 video is available on Youtube, showing a delightful scene of the park as it was.

In 1960, Bill Koch married Santa’s daughter, Patricia Yellig, daughter of Jim Yellig, a poetic reminder of the importance of the two families to the city of Santa Claus, IN. 

Santa Claus Land brochure, Santa Claus Land, IN.

The Decline of Santa Claus, AZ

Back in Arizona, Talbot’s time at Santa Claus was coming to an end. World War II hadn’t necessarily been kind, closing US 93 road access across Hoover Dam for several years in the 1940s and slowing tourist traffic. Talbot’s husband Ed passed away in 1942, and she remarried two years later, still operating the restaurant and promoting her Santa Claus Acres lots. Several of the lots sold, but none were ever built upon, despite the proximity to the booming tourist attraction of the Hoover Dam and the location along the route to Las Vegas. Why?

Water, as always is the story in the desert. 

Santa Claus, AZ had unexpectedly been built atop land where the water table was very deep, due to a nearby geologic fault. No successful wells were dug, so water had to be hauled by tanker the 14 miles from Kingman, an expensive task. Notes on each dining table reminded guests not to waste water, signed “Mrs. Claus”. 

Talbot also began losing interest in running her tourist attraction due to her increasing gambling habit, reportedly gambling away entire days’ profits at a time. Her second husband died in 1947, and she was getting older, becoming less interested in water conservation and constant food service, especially with the lure of the gambling tables nearby. In 1950, she sold Santa Claus and moved back to Los Angeles near her children. 

The new owners, Doc and Erma Bromaghim, carried on where Ninon Talbot had left off, and for a decade, it was still a holiday at Santa Claus. However, business began to slow, and the Bromaghims began closing the attraction December through February starting in the mid-50s, in order to save money. Water again was a big issue. They were exhausted with trucking water, and reportedly drilled down a staggering 2,000 feet deep, still not finding water. This was the last straw, and they sold Santa Claus in 1965.

And from here, it was nothing but downhill for Santa Claus, with the common end-of-life tale for roadside attractions like this. At least eight different owners spun through the place, which clearly drew in those who didn’t give thought to the practicalities of water and customer service. But of course, no owner lasted long, and no one invested any money in improvements or even upkeep. Maintenance slipped, and things got shabby. The new owners stopped answering the children’s Christmas letters each year.

The holiday aesthetic of the neat and charming Santa village was lost. 

Where once there was Mrs. Santa Claus and her Rum Pie, there now was microwave sandwiches. The gas station closed, becoming a very slow moving antique and curio shop specializing in music boxes. One owner reportedly favored using mannequins in parked cars in an attempt to give the attraction an air of business. 

Author Mark Winegardner described the latter days of Santa Claus in his 1987 book “Elvis Presley Boulevard: From Sea to Shining Sea, Almost”: “Styrofoam silver bells, strands of burned-out Christmas lights and faded plastic likenesses of Old Saint Nick garnished this little village. A lopsided, artificial twenty-foot tree whistled in the wind beside a broken Coke machine and an empty ice freezer. Two of the three buildings were padlocked; through their windows, encrusted with layers of sand and decade-old aerosol snow.

Drivers in the second half of the century weren’t looking for roadside attractions and surprises like their parents and grandparents had, either. People wanted to get where they were going, be it to the glimmers of Phoenix in one direction or Vegas in the other. 

A variety of new uses for Santa Claus were proposed throughout the years, but nothing went beyond the dreaming stage: a foster home, a trailer park, a cocktail lounge, a shopping center. Ultimately, the town was wiped from the official maps, and officially closed services in 1993 (some sources say 1995).

Advertisement for lan in Santa Claus, AZ. Image by benchurchill / radiotrippictures on Flickr (used under license: CCBY2.0)

The entire “town” has been for sale off and on since. As of this recording, you can buy Santa Claus, Arizona for the princely sum of $440,000. The real estate listing (which you can view here) dully lists a brief history of the place, ending with the following in a scream, sans punctuation and with several typographical and grammatical errors: “4 ACRE ON MAJOR HWY BRING BACK THE ORGINAL TOWN OF SANTA CLAUSE ONCE HAD ITS ON POST OFFICE NUMBER THINK OF A GREAT SHOW CAR AND BIKE STOP MAKE A STATEMENT, REBUILD AND DRAW IN THE TOURIST AND LOCALS”. 

Route 93, where Santa Claus is located, is still the sole route between Vegas and the major Arizona cities, yet Santa Claus sits abandoned, covered in graffiti and dilapidated on the side of the road, in the middle of the harsh and unyielding Mojave Desert. 

It’s a cautionary note for the future of many desert cities, as water in the area becomes more scarce. What happens when a place is no longer habitable? Here lies Santa Claus, Arizona. 

Images of the abandoned interiors: http://www.placesthatwere.com/2015/07/christmas-tree-inn-in-abandoned-santa.html

The very decayed and graffiti’d Christmas Tree Inn in Santa Claus, AZ, once a prize restaurant off Route 66. Image by benchurchill / radiotrippictures on Flickr (used under license: CCBY2.0)
The abandoned former service station in Santa Claus, AZ. Image by ruralwarriorphotography / becketttgirlphotos on Flickr, used under license CCBYND.

The End of Santa Claus Land and Christmas Park and Santa Claus School? No.

It was reportedly one of Charles Howard’s great dreams, that modest little theme park called “Christmas Park”, sitting next to the school for Santa Clauses in Albion, NY. It was ultimately not a long-lived park, however. Howard became distressed with the direction the park was heading in 1964, quoted in an article at the time as saying, “They put in merry-go-rounds and ferris wheels. I have nothing against these things, but in Christmas Park a ferris wheel should be in the form of a Christmas wreath, and a merry-go-round should have reindeer to ride on.” His complaints came along with reports of financial troubles, and the next year in 1965, Christmas Park filed for bankruptcy, about ¾ of a million dollars in debt in today’s money. 

The entire operation was sold at auction; a man named Vincent Cardone purchased the school and theme park, and a woman named Elizabeth Babcock purchased the Santa suit business she’d been managing for several years. Other items and tracts of land were sold to other buyers. 

Howard died in 1966. Said by a journalist at the time, he “guided his sleigh into the limitless great beyond.”

http://nyhistoric.com/2012/12/santa-claus/ The remnants of Christmas Park were left alone, untouched by all accounts over the last 50 or so years, and still remain to this day, including the old train tunnel and the barns, some still with signs attached and Christmas wreaths decorating the insides. Today, a historical marker stands on the site. It reads: “Santa Claus. Charles W. Howard, 1896-1966. In 1937 he established here a world famous Santa Claus School, the first of its kind, and 1953 Christmas Park. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Santa Claus”. 

What about Santa Claus Land? 

The park continued to add new rides through the 60s, 70s and 80s, delightfully detailed on the park’s official timeline page: https://www.holidayworld.com/holiblog/2019/05/15/timeline-santa-claus-land-holiday-world-splashin-safari/  In the 1970s, the park moved its entrance, signalling a major focus change from kid-focused to whole-family entertainment. They added nine major rides over the next decade. By 1984, the park changed its name to Holiday World, expanding with two new holiday-themed areas, Halloween and 4th of July. Jim Yellig served as Santa at the park from its opening in 1946 until a few months before his death in 1984. There’s also been a couple of community housing developments from the Koch family, called Christmas Lake Village and Holiday Village.

1993 saw the addition of a major waterpark called Splashin’ Safari, and 2006 saw the addition of a Thanksgiving themed area to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the park. The park is of course, still open today, a major, award-winning theme park and waterpark, and at least four generations of the Koch family have owned the park. In 2004, it won the international Applause award, honoring “foresight, originality, and creativity, plus sound business development and profitability,” the smallest theme park at the time to ever win said award. 

Ironically, the park is once again no longer open during the Christmas season, closed mid-November through mid-May. Visitors to Santa Claus, IN can find themselves in the same situation as folks 70 years ago – not a lot of Santa Claus in Santa Claus around the holidays. 

As part of the park’s 70th anniversary celebrations, the “Freedom Train”, the miniature railroad engine that had been the last original ride removed from the park, was brought back as a stationary display, considered by the park’s president as “an important part of our history”.

As for the Santa Claus School, it too is still in operation. It operated in Albion until 1968, at which point Charles Howard’s friends, Nate and Mary Ida Doran, moved the school to Bay City, MI. Tom and Holly Valent took over operation in 1987, and the school moved to Midland, MI, where it still teaches approximately 300 Santas per year today. 

And as of 2010, professional Santa Phillip L. Wenz authored the Santa Claus Oath, a set of guiding principles for those seeking to embody Santa Claus. It was dedicated in the honor of Charles Howard and Jim Yellig, in the rotunda of Santa’s Candy Castle, there in Santa Claus, IN. https://santaclausoath.webs.com/abouttheoath.htm 


Now, to the pedantic out there as we get back to our question about earliest theme parks. You might also award Knott’s Berry Farm the title of the first theme park, as it had a Wild West and Ghost Town area that opened all the way back in 1941. However, it was still primarily a restaurant at the time and didn’t become an enclosed theme park officially until the 50s or 60s. But that’s really neither here nor there. And of course, if you broaden the question to include “amusement” parks and not just theme parks, you’ll have to go back to the 1500s.

Of course, there was another Christmas theme park that was also considered one of the first theme parks in the US. But we’ll have to save that one for another year.

I really liked this quote I found while researching for this episode, in an article about historical preservation and Charles Howard. Orleans County historian Matt Ballard writes in a 2018 article: “Material culture serves a valuable purpose in the process of interpreting the past. Void of any physical representation of past cultures, we would lose all ability to understand the lives of those who lived without a voice.” It’s this quote that shines a light on at least my own fascination with abandoned places and abandoned theme parks. What we leave behind helps us understand what came before, especially if they were a person of less power.

Charles Howard, one of the great Santa Clauses, himself wrote a letter in favor of historical preservation for landmark buildings in Albion in the 1960s. From a young age, too, Howard realized that teaching the role of Santa was a great task and always viewed that task as a privilege. So important was this role, that Howard remarked, “To say there is no Santa Claus is the most erroneous statement in the world. Santa Claus is a thought that is passed from generation to generation. After time this thought takes on a human form. Maybe if all children and adults understand the symbolism of this thought we can actually attain Peace on Earth and good will to men everywhere.”


Santa Claus, AZ

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Santa Claus, IN; Charles Howard; Santa Claus Land

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  46. Staff W. Santa Claus, Indiana. Moment of Indiana History – Indiana Public Media. https://indianapublicmedia.org/momentofindianahistory/santa-claus-indiana/. Accessed December 4, 2019.
  47. Santa Claus, Indiana. In: Wikipedia. ; 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Santa_Claus,_Indiana&oldid=928519362. Accessed December 4, 2019.
  48. Santa Claus, Indiana gets 20,000 letters a year – and “elves” reply to all of them | US news | The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/dec/09/santa-claus-indiana-gets-20000-letters-a-year-and-elves-reply-to-all-of-them. Accessed December 11, 2019.
  49. Santa Clauses, Salami-Tyers and Soap-Tasters – Mechanix Illustrated (Dec, 1952). Modern Mechanix. http://blog.modernmechanix.com/santa-clauses-salami-tyers-and-soap-tasters/. Accessed December 11, 2019.
  50. The Birth of the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School | Orleans County Department of History. http://orleanscountyhistorian.org/the-birth-of-the-charles-w-howard-santa-claus-school/. Accessed December 6, 2019.
  51. The Early History of Theme Parks in the United States. https://www.arcadiapublishing.com/Navigation/Community/Arcadia-and-THP-Blog/September-2017/%E2%80%8BThe-Early-History-of-Theme-Parks-in-America. Accessed December 4, 2019.
  52. The History of Holiday World. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgzWYYhl4QY. Accessed December 4, 2019.
  53. The History of Holiday World Theme Park. TripSavvy. https://www.tripsavvy.com/the-history-of-holiday-world-3882464. Accessed December 11, 2019.
  54. The History of Santa Claus, Indiana. http://web.archive.org/web/20151103203238/http://www.hohoholdings.com/schistory.htm. Published November 3, 2015. Accessed December 4, 2019.
  55. The year-round Santa. http://westsidenewsny.com/pastarchives/OldSite/westside/news/2003/1222/feature/theyearround.html. Accessed December 11, 2019.
  56. Dahl DL. Those Kids Deserve Water Too: A History of the Patoka Lake Regional Water and Sewer District. Lulu Press, Inc; 2019.
  57. Marimen M, Willis JA, Taylor T. Weird Indiana: Your Travel Guide to Indiana’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc.; 2008.
  58. Western New York Amusement Parks – Rose Ann Hirsch – Google Books. https://books.google.com/books?id=xtrLDCJYVsAC&pg=PA69&lpg=PA69&dq=igloo+tunnel+christmas+park&source=bl&ots=jAmCGrIUyu&sig=x3-ggbRI5W5iqooOk2SoEEZJHXg&hl=en&sa=X&ei=6bS8UP6vMvOs0AHDwoH4BA&ved=0CEUQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=igloo%20tunnel%20christmas%20park&f=false. Accessed December 6, 2019.
  59. World’s Oldest Santa Statue, Santa Claus, Indiana. RoadsideAmerica.com. https://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/16624. Accessed December 9, 2019.

Other Santa Claus References

  1. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. In: Wikipedia. ; 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Life_and_Adventures_of_Santa_Claus&oldid=929426527. Accessed December 5, 2019.
  2. Boissoneault L. A Civil War Cartoonist Created the Modern Image of Santa Claus as Union Propaganda. Smithsonian. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/civil-war-cartoonist-created-modern-image-santa-claus-union-propaganda-180971074/. Accessed December 5, 2019.
  3. Christmas. In: Wikipedia. ; 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Christmas&oldid=928552167. Accessed December 5, 2019.
  4. Copyrigit Messages. http://smib.tripod.com/copyrght.htm. Accessed December 5, 2019.
  5. How Coca-Cola invented Christmas as we know it. Salon. https://www.salon.com/2017/12/16/how-coca-cola-invented-christmas-as-we-know-it_partner/. Published December 16, 2017. Accessed December 9, 2019.
  6. How Santa brought Coca-Cola in from the cold. National Museum of American History. https://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/santa-coca-cola. Published December 17, 2014. Accessed December 5, 2019.
  7. Ought it not be a Merry Christmas? https://www.alexandriava.gov/historic/fortward/default.aspx?id=39996. Accessed December 6, 2019.
  8. Santa Claus. In: Wikipedia. ; 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Santa_Claus&oldid=928457109. Accessed December 5, 2019.
  9. Santa Claus, Georgia. In: Wikipedia. ; 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Santa_Claus,_Georgia&oldid=926675816. Accessed December 8, 2019.
  10. The True History of the Modern Day Santa Claus. The Coca-Cola Company. https://www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/coke-lore-santa-claus. Accessed December 5, 2019.
  11. Thomas Nast | Santa Claus in Camp (published in Harper’s Weekly, January 3, 1863) | The Met. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/427502. Accessed December 5, 2019.
  12. Trolley park. In: Wikipedia. ; 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Trolley_park&oldid=919839820. Accessed December 4, 2019.
  13. Solutions UCC-O. USPS Operation Santa. http://about.usps.com/holidaynews/operation-santa.htm. Accessed December 9, 2019.
  14. Where Was the First Department Store Santa Claus? New England Today. December 2018. https://newengland.com/today/living/new-england-history/first-department-store-santa-claus/. Accessed December 6, 2019.

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