SANTA CLAUS, Ga. — Santa Claus was closed, locked up tight. City Hall was anyway, empty as a naughty kid's stocking.
Here it was barely a week before Christmas and the town with the city-limits sign that is more declaration than municipal marker — “Santa Claus ... The City That Loves Children” — wasn’t exactly bustling. Even at 25 December Drive, Santa Claus City Hall, where the decorations never come down.
When city clerk Barbara Ward rode up in her pickup and unlocked the place for a couple of out-of-towners the other day, she said, “We just open it up on Tuesday, mostly for people to pay their water bills.”
This time of year, folks leave their Christmas cards in a drop box on the front door. (If you do, they will stamp on a just-for-fun, red-inked postmark featuring St. Nick himself and send the card on its way.)
As of last week, they had handled 1,010 cards.
“One person called me up from a church and wanted to know if we could stamp 3,000,” Mayor Earl Horton Jr. said. “I had to call her back and tell her we weren’t equipped to do that.”
The town of 250 or so people, 67 houses and some apartments sprouted from a pecan grove along the east shoulder of U.S. 1, near Vidalia, about halfway between Savannah and Macon, in 1941. The merry moniker was a ploy to reel in tourists so they’d buy the local nuts.
Going on 70 years later, what remains is a subdivision-size curiosity with a convenience store. The Santa Claus Minit Mart to be precise, where the drink cooler is no doubt as chilling as the North Pole.
During the holidays, there are no pay-to-see, Callaway Gardens-style, electric-light extravaganzas.
However, on Christmas Eve, they do line the streets — avenues with names like Candy Cane Lane, Sleigh Street and Rudolph Way — with luminarias, paper bags with candles glowing inside.
“When you get to the end of one street and look down, it looks like a runway,” Ward, 73, said. “It’s beautiful.”
At a Christmas party for children earlier this month, they brought in a man dressed as Santa. Ward, a resident since 1963, said, “A little boy about 8 years old came up to me and he said, ‘You know, he’s the real Santa Claus.’ I said, ‘You didn’t believe in Santa Claus?’ He said, ‘Yeah, but there’s so many.’ ’’
Turns out, there are only a few Santa Claus, USAs. (Perhaps the best-known being the one in Indiana. The other is an uninhabited speck in Arizona.)
What may stand out most about Santa Claus, Ga., is how little it stands out. Despite having the jolliest of names, every day isn’t Christmas. At least not for everyone.
One local, who didn’t care to be quoted “except about Georgia Southern football,” said, “I probably look old enough to be Santa Claus, but I don’t want to be quoted because I deal in realities more than fantasies.”
For the tourist in search of a roadside Shangri-la, there aren’t too many presents under the tree. Not that the city-limits sign won’t elicit a chuckle and a double take or two on the ride up toward Interstate 16 and the store named Sweet Onion Junction, and, farther north, the stretch of Emanuel County four-lane known as the Strange Highway. (So named, if you must know, for former deputy sheriff and civic leader L.C. “Shot” Strange.)
Still, there are perks to telling folks you live in Santa Claus.
“You always get a smile,” said Helen Wright, who moved to the Kris Kringle community in the 1970s and whose front yard features a palm tree growing next to a pecan tree.
“Palm trees and Santa Claus,” Wright said.
Pop into the neighborhood this time of year and you’re about as likely to see “Happy Birthday Jesus” and “Christmas is about Jesus” signs in front of houses as you are inflatable snowmen.
“Everybody, as far as I know, believes in Jesus and believes in Santa Claus,” said Ward, who lives on Reindeer Street. “We have neighbors that are neighbors, but they’re not nosy neighbors.”
Well, not exactly.
The enlightened residents of Rudolph Way have to be as, um, nosy as they come.
See a Santa Claus photo gallery at Macon.com