Whether by accident or inspiration, certain towns across the United States — from North Pole, Alaska, to Christmas Cove, Maine, and Garland, Texas — get extra attention each December and in some ways embody the spirit of the holiday season.
One Christmas Eve in the 1850s, families in Santa Fe, Indiana, gathered in a log cabin to debate what to rename their town. They had wanted to raise the town’s profile by getting a post office, but they learned they could not unless they changed the town’s name. Postal officials said another nearby town already had a claim on the name Santa Fe, explains Melissa Arnold of the Spencer County Visitors Bureau.
Suddenly, a gust of wind blew open the door, and the sound of sleigh bells wafted in. “Santa Claus!” the children shouted. And the name stuck, according to local legend. In the decades since, the town of Santa Claus, Indiana, has embraced the spirit of Christmas like a cozy blanket. Its local businesses include a campground at Lake Rudolph, Frosty’s Fun Center Restaurant, Santa Claus Brewing Company and a theme park called Holiday World.
“It’s the most festive town in the world,” Arnold says. “It’s Christmas throughout the year but goes all out in December.”
The original town post office is now part of a Santa Claus Museum and offers space for children to write letters to Santa. Each year, a local student designs a Santa Claus postmark for the official U.S. Postal Service to use there. That postmark draws visitors who want to mail their gifts and cards from the town.
Noel, Missouri, in the Ozarks region, calls itself “Christmas City” and encourages people to send their holiday cards from there to get a special Noel postmark. In Christmas, Florida, where a large, fully decorated tree is up year-round, volunteer elves help answer letters from children to Santa.
Charlene Donchez Mowers concedes that the origin story for her town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, sounds like a movie script. The Pennsylvania town was named on Christmas Eve more than two centuries ago while church members stood in a manger singing hymns, says Donchez Mowers, who works with the Bethlehem World Heritage Commission and Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites.
Near Philadelphia and about 145 kilometers from New York City, Bethlehem started as a settlement of Moravian missionaries.
Many of the town’s 1700s buildings are still standing, and the downtown area, all decorated for Christmas, is picturesque enough that it was chosen by the Hallmark channel to show on its livestream cameras. A gigantic star on South Mountain, overlooking the city, is lighted year-round and can be seen from kilometers away. Single candles light the windows of many historic sites in town as well as businesses and family homes. The holiday season features horse-drawn carriage rides and historic Christmas trees decorated by the local garden club.
“It has a wonderful feeling of Christmas,” Donchez Mowers says. “It sparkles at night, and it’s beautiful by day with the historic buildings and the clip-clop of horses’ hooves.”
Not all Christmas-sounding towns were named by the holiday. Rudolph, Wisconsin, for example, is named after a baby born there long ago, though townspeople today do try to connect the place to Santa’s red-nosed reindeer with a 5-kilometer “Run, Run Rudolph” race in December.
The small coastal village of Christmas Cove in Maine is so named because Captain John Smith — who played an important role in establishing the first English colony in Virginia — visited the cove on December 25, 1614. (One hint that the name isn’t much about the holiday season is the fact that tourism websites give directions on how to arrive by boat.)
You’d need a boat — maybe even an ice-breaker ship — to reach the real North Pole in the Arctic Ocean. But North Pole, Alaska, isn’t far from Fairbanks, Alaska.
In the 1950s, landowners petitioned to change the name from Davis with the hopes that toymakers and others would want to locate there to stamp their goods with “made at the North Pole.” Though that plan didn’t work out, the town carries out the theme with streets like Snowman Lane. It also holds a popular winter festival with fireworks, an ice carving contest and live reindeer at a business called the Santa Claus House — perfect for those Instagram moments.