North Pole, Alaska — Along the Richardson Highway in the Alaskan interior, "towns" — and that's being generous — often spring up for a single purpose: to provide food, water and, of course, fuel to passing motorists.
Mosquito Junction was once such a wayside. But that was before the handful of residents decided to incorporate and name their frigid outpost North Pole.
Now the streetlights and fire hydrants are striped like candy canes. Santa Claus, naturally, is in residence year-round at the holiday-themed gift shop bearing his name. And when the letters from children start pouring in, St. Nick drafts a legion of locals to help with the replies.
The municipal motto is "Where the spirit of Christmas lives year round." Yep, North Pole is a real company town.
During July and August, tens of thousands of tourists swarm to North Pole, which, on the map, is actually a few miles southeast of Fairbanks. They come mainly to visit Santa Claus House, the store where kids can give the big guy an early wish list and even help feed the reindeer grazing out back. A few feet away, towering over the lonely highway, what purports to be the world's tallest Santa, a 42-foot giant, invites passersby to stop — and for more than a mere potty break.
Planning your trip
Santa Claus House ( 588-4078) http://www.santaclaushouse.com, at 101 St. Nicholas Drive, is the primary attraction in North Pole, Alaska. Here, kids can chat with Santa and help feed his reindeer while parents shop for holiday-themed items.
It's also one of two local businesses that create customized letters from Santa, with prices starting at $9.95. The other vendor is Santa's Letters and Gifts ( 488-8118, http://www.santaslettersandgifts.com).
Santa's Mailbag will answer letters free of charge, although donations are welcome. Mail them to Santa Claus, 1 Santa Claus Lane, North Pole, AK 99705.
Christmas in Ice (http://www.christmasinice.org), a nonprofit festival, continues through Jan. 2. Tickets cost $6 for adults and $4 for children ages 5 to 11.
The queues to see Santa are longer than those at the restrooms. And because all those toys don't just make themselves, you know, Mr. Claus has to recruit a look-alike to help. And not just any old Santa wannabe will do.
"This is the holy grail for people who want to play Santa," says Paul Brown, operations manager at Santa Claus House.
"We're looking for the quintessential Santa.
"We don't look at anyone with an artificial beard. [He needs] rosy cheeks and a big belly. If they have the right 'ho, ho, ho,' they'll fit right in here.… It's got to be deep and come from the belly."
Each year, after a painstaking search involving a for-real Santa Claus agent in the Lower 48, someone's offered the job.
"They really get into the character. As far as some of these guys are concerned, they really are Santa," Brown explains.
Scads of letters addressed only to "Santa Claus, North Pole" have been flooding in since the place got its own post office in 1954. And while those addressed specifically to one of the two local companies that answer letters for a fee are guaranteed a response, local volunteers think all the others deserve replies too.
Personnel from nearby Eielson Air Force Base were the first to sign up. That first year, they wrote letters to 300 children. Later, school bus drivers and students from the University of Alaska joined in. Then, an English teacher at North Pole Middle School adopted the letter writing as a class project.
"They were answering letters all the way into April and May in the mid- to late-1980s," says Gabby Gaborik, whose nonprofit Santa's Mailbag eventually took over the voluminous task.
Despite the fact that his beard's too short and too gray to look like Santa's, Gaborik will oversee replies to about 25,000 letters this year, from believers around the world.
"The majority are from children 5, 6 or 7 years of age," he explains, adding that — in these tough economic times — children often ask for Santa's help finding jobs for Mommy or Daddy.
After sharing tears and laughter, Gaborik and his helpers will personally put a child's name and an elf's signature onto a form letter and affix the proper postage. As long as a return address is provided, they'll make the cold and often dark trek to the mailbox.
Indeed, during December, North Pole residents endure 20 hours of darkness and often days on end of sub-zero temperatures, but that doesn't deter them from venturing outdoors. The annual Christmas in Ice festival provides a great reason to pull on the parkas and mukluks.
The festival draws around 20 ice sculptors from across the globe. Armed with chainsaws and chisels, they compete for prizes, carving such imagery as Nativity scenes and snowflakes out of crystal-clear blocks of ice cut from a local pond.
"We're talking some serious weight," says Paul Brown, whose Santa Claus House also owns the adjoining RV park where Christmas in Ice is held.
"Our typical competition piece is 4 feet by 6 feet and 24 inches thick, and it weighs 4,500 to 4,800 pounds," he continues. "Six hundred tons of ice went into the park last year."
A play area for youngsters, replete with a maze and slides carved from ice, plus a glacier-like, 25-foot-tall Christmas tree complete the motif. Hot chocolate is for sale inside the heated concession stand.
Just don't forget to bring some heavy-duty hand warmers.