You better watch out. You better not cry. Some of the letters that arrive by the sackful at Santa Claus House in North Pole, Alaska, will break your heart.
A selection of these handwritten notes – from kids in America, neighbouring Russia and far-flung Germany – is displayed in the store's foyers. They're a glimpse into what goes on behind the scenes at this Christmas-themed business and small city, a 20-minute drive from Fairbanks in Alaska's interior. Between them, the store and local post office receive up to half a million Santa letters annually.
With North Pole wedged between Eielson Air Force Base and Fort Wainwright Army base, it's no surprise the more memorable letters come from kids in military families. Paul Brown, who married into Santa Claus House's founding family and is the operations manager, says: "Santa will get the question, 'Dear Santa, my daddy's deployed, can you bring him back?' or 'Dear Santa, my daddy was at war, he's not coming back' – a lot of that really sad stuff.
"Santa is great at handling that," he says. "It's enlightening to read the letters. You can tell some of the trends, whether it's political or social or economic trends such as the recession of 2008. We started to see that before it made headlines. 'Dear Santa, my mommy lost her job – can you help her get a job?' or 'Dear Santa, I'm not going to be able to live at my house at Christmas time – hopefully you can find me.' "
There's "a lot of funny stuff, too, 'Dear Santa, bring gifts, take my brother,' " Brown says.
Santa Claus House started when Brown's wife Carissa's grandparents, Con and Nellie Miller, built a general store in the area. Miller had been a fur buyer, donning a Santa suit when travelling to rural outposts.
"He was the first Santa Claus many village children had ever seen," Brown says. When Miller tired of travelling and started building his store in a spot infamously several degrees colder than Fairbanks, "local kids drove by and yelled out, 'Hello Santa Claus, are you building a house?' and it became Santa Claus House," Brown says.
A year after opening in 1952, the savvy Miller delivered paperwork asking for the community to be named North Pole. "The two have grown together," says Brown. Today, street lamps and even the McDonald's sign are held up by red and white-striped poles resembling candy canes and residents leave their Yuletide decorations in place year-round.
In the early years, military personnel shopping for family and friends drove Santa Claus House's growth. By the 1960s, it was catering to curious tourists motoring north to see Alaska, which had only joined the union in 1959. The highway was rerouted in 1972 but Santa Claus House moved with it to continue tapping passing traffic. Today's store is 10 times bigger than the 1972 one.
The business is best known for its Santa letter. For $US9.95 ($US1 more for destinations outside the US), Santa sends a standard or customised letter. "We've mailed out millions of those – it's something we're famous for," says Brown. Templates cover a wide range of recipients, from non-believers and not-so-good adults and children to pet cats and dogs. You can also drop in to visit Santa, who works Wednesday to Sunday year-round. "At Christmas time it becomes a madhouse in here – there's a two- to three-hour wait for Santa," says Brown. "We pass out numbers so people can mill around and don't have to stand in line."
That leaves them free to browse merchandise ranging from knick-knacks up to a $US15,000 hand-carved Russian dogsled display. "We don't sell trees, garlands or Christmas lights – we can't compete on price – but specialised ornaments do well," Brown says. Best-sellers include Santa Claus House- and North Pole-branded items, and Alaskan-made products.
Brown is better placed than most to reflect on the meaning of Christmas. "As easy as it is to become jaded, there's still magic to Christmas," he says. "We encourage people to remember what the holidays are about. It's about friends and family, and a joyful spirit.
"You see people when they walk through the doors [and] it's the happiest place on earth. It doesn't matter what day of the year it is – you can come in here and feel the magic of the holidays. Where else in the world can you give Santa your Christmas list in July?"
Santa Claus House is at 101 St Nicholas Drive, North Pole, Alaska. Santa's reindeer live next door at the Antler Academy, which also hosts Christmas in Ice, a seasonal ice-sculpture park. from November 30 until January 6. See santaclaushouse.com, christmasinice.org
Katrina Lobley was a guest of Explore Fairbanks and Brand USA.