FAIRBANKS — It’s not every community that has a 42-foot-tall Santa Claus, candy cane-shaped streetlights and a nearly 100 percent chance of a white Christmas. But North Pole, Alaska, has all three and more. The main thoroughfares in the city of about 2,000 are called Santa Claus Lane and St. Nicholas Drive. The Christmas tree at city hall stays up year-round. Even the president of the local chamber of commerce is legally named Santa Claus.
In North Pole, Alaska, the Christmas spirit is alive and well. The city’s motto is “Where the spirit of Christmas lives year-round,” and deputy North Pole mayor Mike Welch, who also has a Christmas tree in his home year-round, said that’s something the community tries to live up to.
During the extended power outages in November, Welch said he came home in the dark to find a note on his door inviting him and his neighbors to a local church for a hot dinner and movie in a place that had toilets that flushed. “That was just a great feeling, knowing your neighbors had your back in a time of need.”
There is plenty for visitors to do, too.
At the epicenter is Santa Claus House, a family-owned Christmas-themed business established in 1952 by Con and Nellie Miller. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Con Miller used to dress up as Santa, which led to the idea of Santa Claus House.
“Despite the fact that we celebrated our 60-year anniversary in 2012, Santa Claus House is still a family-run business,” said Nicole Blizinski, Santa Claus House marketing coordinator. “They believe in giving that Christmas spirit to everyone they can. They really loved Christmas.”
Although summer is the main tourism season, bringing visitors from around the world to North Pole, Blizinski said Christmas is also very busy, attracting local residents, especially children.
Santa Claus House bills itself as Santa’s official residence and the jolly old elf himself will be around every day through Christmas Eve for kids to whisper their last-minute wish lists, Blizinski said. An expanded coffee shop offers hot drinks and fudge made on the premises. (Blizinski noted that the chamber of commerce’s Santa Claus is not affiliated with Santa Claus House.)
And while Santa is busy talking to the children, his “elves” are working away behind the scenes answering letters from all around the world. Blizinski didn’t have an exact number of people who process the letters from Santa, which the business has been delivering since 1952, but said millions of letters have been mailed in the past 60 years. Santa Claus House still uses the same basic stationery it used in 1952, with a couple dozen different types of letters so kids don’t get the same one in successive years.
Outside, the 42-foot fiberglass Santa is checking his list, while a pen just behind holds reindeer. Only three are in the pen right now and Blizinski explained the other five are at “reindeer practice.” Blizinski keeps up the Christmas spirit when talking about the jolly old elf, his helper elves and the reindeer, just in case a small child happens to overhear.
Right next door is the annual Christmas in Ice celebration, a 7-acre park featuring ice carvings made by some of the world’s best sculptors, as well as a kid’s play area with slides, “worm crawls” and other ice-based amusements, said Keith Fye, chairman of Christmas in Ice.
“We’ve still got a lot of carving going on,” Fye said. While the single-block and multi-block competitions are complete, sculptors are building more ice slides and other attractions. “New ice babies are hatching daily,” Fye said, explaining that the “ice babies” are mini sculptures people can buy and take home.
Santa Claus will even make an appearance on Christmas Day “so kids can thank him for their gifts,” Fye said. The park will be open from noon to 5 p.m. and there will be no admission charge on Christmas Day.
The park is open until Jan. 7, and the annual New Year’s fireworks and snowflake drop will take place at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
While most of the 15,000 annual visitors are local, Fye said visitors from Australia, Japan, Brazil, Bosnia, Sweden, Hong Kong and the Netherlands have stopped by so far this year, as well as people from 25 or 30 states. They’re all drawn by the same thing, he said, “It’s Christmas. People want to experience that wintry Christmas season, and where else but North Pole?”
Contact staff writer Julie Stricker at 459-7532.
IF YOU GO
What: Santa Claus House
Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Dec. 23, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Christmas Eve.
Cost: No admission fee
What: Christmas in Ice
Hours: Open until Jan. 7: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; noon to 5 p.m. Christmas day (free admission)
Cost: $8 for adults; $5 children 6-12; 5 and under free; discounts for groups and seniors