Catch Christmas spirit in North Pole, Alaska

Destination Alaska

July 30, 2006|By MARSHALL S. BERDAN | MARSHALL S. BERDAN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NORTH POLE, ALASKA / / Holiday banners hang overhead, giant plastic candy canes adorn the utility poles and alongside the roadway, an enormous fiberglass Santa beckons shoppers in out of the threat of snow that hangs palpably in a leaden sky. Christmas must be just around the corner, right? Well, not in North Pole. It's not the North Pole, of course, but the Alaskan interior community of about 1,700, which, at 64.45 degrees north latitude, is generally close enough for most lower 48ers.

To be sure, this North Pole, a marshy lowland of stunted birch and spruce, isn't particularly easy to get to either - unless, that is, you happen to live in Fairbanks, 14 miles north via Richardson Highway. But that doesn't prevent about 100,000 annual well-wishers from dropping in on the occupants of 101 St. Nicholas Drive, a rambling white and red, timber-trimmed emporium known far and wide as the Santa Claus House. Not surprisingly, most of them come during the summer months, when even if it does threaten to snow - as it did for me, my wife and our 5-year-old daughters over Labor Day weekend - it's still a lot more palatable than December's average temperature of minus 15.

Nor is it difficult to find - not with that world's largest Santa (42 feet high and weighing 900 pounds) standing sentinel nearby and an equally oversized two-dimensional image towering next to a red-and-white striped North Pole. Inside - just as the ubiquitous promotional materials promise - it is indeed "Christmas every day." Christmas songs waft through the air, while continuous screenings of the 1954 movie White Christmas dance across an elevated TV monitor.

We have scarcely begun surveying all the one-season-fits-all merchandise, much of which is distinctly Alaskan, when the jingle of sleigh bells announces the return of the homeowner himself, back from a break. Clad in a dark blue, snowflake-design shirt to complement his traditional red pants and held together by red, white and blue suspenders, he looks amazingly like the skipper from Gilligan's Island - with a beard.

As it turns out, this is not the legendary Mr. Claus at all, but the very real Kris Kringle - the name he legally adopted when he signed onto this year-round gig more than a decade ago. Kringle climbs into his wooden chair and our girls - who are suddenly stricken with a bout of shyness - are his first photo-op "customers" ($4 with the shop's camera, free with your own). They are followed by a 60-something couple from Germany and a 30-some- thing couple from Huntington Beach, Calif.

Any expectations Kringle might have had for a slow shift evaporate with the arrival of a bus full of post-cruise seniors from Minnesota who, collectively at least, have few qualms about either squeezing onto his lap (mostly the women) or posing alongside him (mostly the men).

While the grandparents dash off their newly bought postcards so that they can be stamped "Santa's Official Mail" and place their orders for an "original" "Letter from Santa" (extra "elves" are hired to see that all the $7.50 letters go out in December), we duck out into the chilly summer air to check on Dasher and Blitzen, both of whom are lazing about in their reindeer (i.e., domesticated caribou) pen. Neither looks the least bit flight-worthy, but they still have five months to get back in shape - or so we explain to the girls. Placards attached to trees explain the historical origins of such Christmas traditions as the 12 days, the candy cane and the Christmas tree.

As we learn later, the Santa Claus House comes by its commercialism honestly. The site, along Fourteen-Mile Slough, was homesteaded in the mid-1940s by Bon Davis, who named the soon-to-be-established whistle stop on the Alaska Railroad for himself. The development company that bought Davis out renamed the settlement North Pole in the hopes of attracting a toy manufacturer that would be able to label its products "Made at the North Pole."

At least that was the plan. But given North Pole's high shipping costs and shallow labor pool, no toy manufacturer materialized. But Conrad and Nellie Miller, homesteaders from Washington state who had settled in Fairbanks in 1949 with only $1.40 to their names, did. Conrad Miller, a fur trader and traveling salesman who had taken to dressing up as Santa Claus when calling on native villages in the winter, had decided that North Pole - "conveniently" located as it was between two military bases - would be the site of his own trading post.

As the company story goes, Miller was constructing a wall one day in 1952 when he was recognized by one of the children he had once visited. "Hey, Santa Claus," inquired the youth, "are you building a new house?" It was a marketing match made in frontier Alaska, and Miller promptly ran it up the North Pole. Fifty years later, and thanks to quantum-leap improvements in transportation and communication (especially the Internet), and the 1983 arrival of that fiberglass Santa - who started off life as a prototype for the Seattle World's Fair of 1962 - the novelty that once was the Santa Claus House is now a Far North institution, and securely in the hands of the Miller children.

IF YOU GO

SANTA CLAUS HOUSE-- 101 St. Nicholas Drive, North Pole, Alaska 99705; 800-588-4078 or 907-488-2200; santaclaushouse.com. Open daily 8 a.m.-8 p.m. through Sept. 10.

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