It’s a tradition that dates back 100 years, and in Pat Koch’s mind, it is one that will continue on forever.
Monday marked the 100th year of “postmark” season in Santa Claus, a Christmas tradition in which a group that refers to itself as “Santa’s Elves, Inc.,” answers letters from people across the world addressed for Santa Claus and mail back a response, postmarked with a stamp featuring the image of Santa.
“It’s a job, but it’s a job that we love doing,” said Koch, founder of the Santa Claus Museum and self-titled “Chief Elf.” “We think it’s a good thing. We think it brings happiness to people and we will continue it until the end of time.”
How it works: People send a letter to Santa including their Christmas wish list, a thank you for a previous present or even just to let Santa know that they’ve moved. Koch said she and her team of “elves” do their best to respond personally to every letter and even go as far as to address the specific item or items they’re asking for in their letter.
They’ll work almost all day from the beginning of December until Dec. 20 responding to letters. Koch estimated that they responded to almost 15,000 letters last year and expect to send even more this year.
Her father, Jim Yellig, was responsible for starting the tradition of a team of “elves” responding to letters. When he returned to Santa Claus in 1930 after serving in the Navy in World War I he helped Postmaster James Martin in responding to letters. Overwhelmed by the increasing volume, Yellig enlisted the help of the local American Legion post, sisters at the Ferdinand Monastery, priests at St. Meinrad and the typing classes as the local high school to help with the process.
Koch was born a year after Yellig returned to the country and when she was around 12 years old, she became an “elf.”
“It’s been a family tradition,” she said. “I grew up with my father with letters in the car, bringing them home, stamping them, helping with that. The tradition must be carried on because children write letters to Santa Claus.
“I think they expect an answer back. When they get one, they’re just thrilled. It brings them so much happiness. It makes the parents happy. We’re helping Santa. Santa is so busy doing toys and getting his sleigh ready that he can’t do all this himself. He comes by and checks but we have to help him, so we’re Santa Elves.”
Three sisters from rural Arkansas made what was nearly a nine-hour trip to hand deliver the letters to Santa on Monday. Pam Galloway of Alma, Arkansas has been doing this for six years but this was the first year the sisters joined her on the trip. Often she’ll make a trip out of it, but this year the group drove to Santa Claus just to deliver the letters and were heading right back. After a tough year for her in which she lost her husband, this year’s trip had a much different meaning.
“The big thing is, especially this year, I needed something to get in the Christmas spirit and this really helps me,” Galloway said. “Christmas has always been one of my favorite holidays. Sometimes we forget the reason for Christmas. This is kind of nice.”
For Postmaster Marian Balbach, it’s the busiest and fastest few weeks of the year, but also a special time.
“It’s joyful because people are happy to come in and get the postmark and are upbeat, in a positive frame of mind so that keeps you positive,” she said. “You see that you’re making other people happy and that’s what it’s all about.”