‘We do believe in Santa Claus’

Photos by Marlena Sloss/The Herald
At the Jim Yellig Santa Claus Celebration this weekend, Jay Gaydosh of Lincoln, Ill., left, Boe Powell of Muncie, center, and another Santa Claus who could not share his name swapped Santa stories at Santa's Lodge in Santa Claus on Friday evening. Sixty Mr. and Mrs. Clauses attended the celebration which included panels, storytelling and recitation of The Santa Claus Oath. Powell, who just started as a full-time Santa Claus last year, said he had looked forward to the "chance to get together and pass that joy of being Santa."


SANTA CLAUS — The late Jim Yellig was celebrated this past weekend for his dedication to being Santa Claus.

His life and love for portraying the jolly soul was discussed at length during the Jim Yellig Santa Claus Celebration, which ran from Friday to Sunday. About 50 Santa and Mrs. Claus portrayers attended the event, which coincided with the 40th anniversary of a booklet Yellig produced for training Santas: “It’s Fun to be a Real Santa Claus.”

“I’m trying to get as much information as possible,” said Santa Patrick Meehan, who came from Louisville to attend the celebration. “Being a Santa is hard work, and you need all the training you can get.”

His goal was to get that training, as well as learn about the enthusiasm that fueled Yellig.

David Fisher of Morgantown, W. Va. showed off his Santa Claus license and credit cards during The Jim Yellig Santa Claus Celebration at Santa's Lodge in Santa Claus on Friday.

“There is an energy with portraying Santa,” he said. “And you have several audiences you need to be aware of. There’s the child who is on your lap. And there are the parents of the child, who are reliving their childhood memories through their child. And then there is the audience of others waiting with their children to talk to Santa. So you have to be aware of all of that and make sure you are on your job.”

Santa Larry Shaw of Indianapolis agreed. “You enjoy the experience,” he said. “You also remember that you are a superhero to the children. Kids will run up and grab you. It’s the greatest feeling to see children excited about Santa Claus.”

Yellig was THE Santa Claus in this area; many have attested to visiting him and sharing their wish lists, as well as taking their children to Santa to do the same.

Several stories about Yellig were told during the weekend, most coming from his family during a Saturday morning session called “The Life and Times of Santa Jim Yellig.”

Larry Shaw of Indianapolis represented his Santa Claus pride with a license plate at The Jim Yellig Santa Claus Celebration at Santa's Lodge in Santa Claus on Friday.

Yellig, a resident of Mariah Hill, was born in 1894. His love for all things Santa started in 1914, during his service in the U.S. Navy.

While docked in Brooklyn, his crew decided to have a Christmas party for underprivileged children. Since Yellig was from the area of Santa Claus, his mates asked him to play Santa. Yellig was so touched by the children’s happiness that he prayed, “If you get me through this war, Lord, I will forever be Santa Claus,” several people noted.

“He kept his promise,” said Phil Wenz of Illinois, a leading historian on Santa Claus who showed throughout the weekend rarely seen footage of Yellig from Wenz’s collection.

Yellig served in the Navy for 17 years and then stayed in Chicago briefly before moving back to Mariah Hill in 1930 to open a restaurant — the first Chateau, his daughter, Pat Koch said. His military service increased Yellig’s passion for veterans.

“That’s what brought out the patriotism in him,” Pat said. “He did so much for veterans.” Some of those deeds included helping veterans sign up for vets benefits and starting the Santa Claus American Legion. Through the legion, Yellig participated in parades in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Philadelphia in the 1930s, dressed as Santa.

Granddaughter Natalie Koch recalled selling poppies with her grandfather, as well as sneaking him food from her grandmother’s kitchen. And she knew her grandfather’s secret, though she never told anyone, especially not other children.

“I always knew he was Santa, and I knew he was grandpa,” she said. “He loved children and loved to make people happy. And he had a great sense of humor.”

Margie Wolczak of Lafayette and Don Rekweg of New Haven unpacked Santa-themed raffle items for The Jim Yellig Santa Claus Celebration at Santa's Lodge in Santa Claus on Friday.

Pat said that Yellig called the Santa outfit the uniform, and he was very serious about remaining in uniform when in public. She remembered her father’s last time riding in a parade as Santa, shortly before his death in 1984 at age 90.

“It was the Dale Fall Fest parade, and it was warm,” she said. “I tried to get him to take off his (Santa) jacket, but he wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t take that jacket off in public.

“When we got home and he finally took it off, he was soaked in perspiration,” Pat added. “He was determined to keep the Santa story true. He didn’t want a child to see him without that jacket on.”

A session about Santa Claus the town was also held Saturday. The town was called Santa Fe up until 1856, when the town attempted to get a post office.

“The postal service said that Santa Fe was already taken,” Wenz said. So the town had to come up with a new name. Legend says that the town’s citizens gathered at a log church to talk about a name, when a gust of December wind blew open the church’s door. A child squealed that it was Santa Claus, and the congregation decided to choose that as its name.

In 1914, then postmaster James Martin went on a mission to get as many letters children wrote to St. Nick routed to Santa Claus, Indiana. He answered them as well, his grandson Greg Martin said.

Chuck Moore of Hoffman Estates, Ill. sat in the sleigh during The Jim Yellig Santa Claus Celebration at Santa's Lodge in Santa Claus on Friday.

In the 1930s, when Yellig arrived back to the community, the town was beginning to build on the Christmas image. Along with answering children’s letters, the Candy Castle was built and dedicated, and a statue of Santa was placed in the community. Eventually, Santa Claus Land — now known as Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari — was created, Christmas Lake Village was built, and different shops and stores were added to the community.

Now, the community is working on restoring the Candy Castle, an effort led by owner Kevin Klosowski, and is building a trail system to connect Yellig Park with the nearby Lincoln State Park.

Hundreds of thousands of people come to visit Holiday World every year, and Santa Claus Town Council President Mike Johannes said the community wants to extend that tourism base to year-round, especially with a longer festival during the Christmas season.

“We do believe in Santa Claus,” he said. “We believe in the history of the town and concept of the of the man and what it stands for. We want this to continue to grow, and to make Santa Claus famous.”

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