When I Met Santa Claus in Indiana, He Knew My Name

Buddy and Me Standing Up (Credit: Andrew Malcolm)

I know Santa Claus is back home by now. The reindeer are fed, watered, and bedded down. The heavy red coat is off, revealing long underwear and black suspenders that hold up his worn red-flannel trousers. The old man’s got his feet up, I’m sure, a warm drink in hand. The woodfire is crackling and glowing.

Once again, no one actually saw Santa Claus last night. But he was there. He was everywhere. The waiting gifts, the empty cookie plate and glass of milk are proof. The carrots for the reindeer are gone too. Sometimes, there’s even a little thank-you note.

That’s the magic of this man.

Now, many people can be afraid of things they can’t see or touch in the dark, things like monsters under the bed or in the closet.

But for some strange reason, we find it much harder to believe in goodness we can’t see or touch. Especially after childhood.

I may have been among the doubters for a sad time. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

Like millions of youngsters for countless decades, soon after Thanksgiving as a youngster, I started getting excited about the Big Guy’s visit. We went downtown to see one of his helpers at the same department store as in the movie “A Christmas Story.”

I don’t remember what I asked him for after waiting in the long line where my feet got bored. I know it wasn‘t a Red Ryder BB gun because I already had one. We’d go out to lunch or dinner to cap the big day.

My grandmother and grandfather came all the way from Canada by train. Excitement built as the day neared. We went to church on Christmas Eve. Family adults opened their presents then because Christmas Day was for children.

Where we lived, it was always a white Christmas. I never heard the sled on the roof, but when I came downstairs in my jammies come morning, I knew Santa had been there. Everything looked magically different.

I think it was third grade when some know-it-all classmate said he knew for a fact that Santa wasn’t real. I didn’t believe him. But the seditious seed of doubt was planted.

I asked my father, who knew everything at the time. He nodded. Some people say that, he replied. “But you don’t have to believe what others say. You only have to believe what’s in your own heart. I believe in Santa Claus. Do you?”

I thought briefly, decided I did. Dad nodded again. “That’s good enough for me.”

I had never actually seen Santa Claus. Just his helpers. But the idea of Santa Claus had always intrigued me.

So, when I heard about Santa Claus, Indiana many years ago, I had to go there. It was a pioneer theme park built around you-know-who. In those days, it had a candy-striped water tower and a fairy-tale-like post office where millions upon millions of letters came every year seeking the distinct postmark.

I asked if Santa Claus was around? “You mean Jim Yellig,” she said. ”He’s outside.”

Sure enough, there he was. I saw him from the back but couldn’t mistake the familiar red Santa suit, fur-trimmed hat, and black boots. He was shorter than I expected.

“Mr. Yellig,” I said. “Jim.”


“Excuse me, Santa?”

Santa stopped and turned around. He was heading to the post office to mail out another box of replies to children’s Santa letters. A local veterans group helped craft them.

I introduced myself by name. “I know,” he said, winking.


Santa turned out to be as friendly as I’d always suspected. His belly was suitably round, and real. When he laughed deeply, as he often did, Santa held his sides. His eyebrows were bushy, of course. I asked if his long white beard was real. Not the first time he heard that question. He tugged hard on it for proof.

We walked to Santa’s office. His desk overflowed with letters. His tall chair stood there with the bells that jingled when Santa sat down or moved.

The line of parents and youngsters practicing their Santa requests was growing as visiting hour neared. But the atmosphere felt different. No elves jumping around. No flash cameras. Just the star attraction in his office.

Santa sat down carefully and heavily, as 80-year-olds do. The chair’s bells jingled. He perched his wire spectacles on the tip of his nose. He slapped both thighs with his white-gloved hands as the official starting signal.

The first little boy stumbled up the steps. “Well, hello, Jimmy. How are you this year?”

Jimmy’s parents, who’d just driven in from their distant home, looked at each other silently.

“Hey,” Santa asked, “how’s that truck doing?” Jimmy showed no surprise over Santa’s personal knowledge.

“You didn’t mean to get in that fight the other day, did you?”

“No, Santa, but he pushed me.”

“I know. I know. So, what are you wishing for this year?”

Later, a little girl neared tears in Santa’s lap. He asked what was wrong. “You know the bike you bringed me last year?”

“The red one?” he replied. “Yes, I remember.”

“Well, somebody stoled it.”

“I know,” said Santa, nodding and pointing, “and his name is right up there.”

The little girl looked up at the thick ledgers high on the shelf above Santa’s desk. One was labeled “Bad Girls Book.” The other Bad Boys Book. And she smiled, happy in the knowledge now that justice would be served.

All day Santa never asked a child’s name. He seemed surprised I asked. “Santa knows every child’s name,” he explained.

Santa told me he first realized his calling many decades ago. He was in the old Brooklyn Navy Yard on a brand new battleship. Because he came from Santa Claus, Indiana, crewmates chose him to dress as Santa at a goodwill party for neighborhood youngsters.

“I looked in those little children’s eyes,” Santa told me, “Suddenly, I knew.”

In his winter off-season, Santa said he studied up on the new crop of toys and rebuilt his holiday wardrobe. Youngsters wore out the knees on four flannel trousers every year.

It’s a very important job. “I love being Santa Claus,” he said, “because, well, you know there’s only one reason for Santa Claus to be. And that is to spread joy and happiness. That’s my life.”

Santa had noticed changes over the years in youngsters’ toy tastes. When he first took on the responsibility, “they wanted marbles, tops, and rolling hoops.” Now, it’s talking dolls and tech stuff.

There is one thing that never changes, however, the inevitability of last night, Christmas Eve.

“I go back,” says Santa, “and take off these shiny boots and the red suit and I sit there. I just can’t believe then that I can’t come back the next day and be Santa Claus. It’s about the saddest time of the year for me.”

I met that man many, many years ago. That’s how I know that Santa Claus is back home by now. The reindeer are fed, watered, and bedded down. The heavy red coat is off, revealing long underwear and black suspenders holding up his worn red-flannel trousers. The old man’s got his feet up, I’m sure, a warm drink in hand. The woodfire is crackling and glowing.

Once again, no one actually saw Santa Claus last night. That doesn’t really matter though. I met the man.

That is why I believe in Santa Claus. And always will.


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