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Christmas Lives at North Pole’s Santa Claus House

Dec 24, 2023Magazine, Tourism

Santa Claus House on St. Nicholas Drive in North Pole.

Santa Claus House

Then Con and Nellie Miller moved to the Interior in 1949, they had $1.40 to their name and two children in tow. To make a living, Con traveled to villages around Fairbanks and traded merchandise and clothing while also buying the inventory of other businesses along the way.

After a couple of years, the family moved to what would later become North Pole and opened a trading post. While he was known to the adult community as a businessman, he was known as something else to their children: Santa Claus.

“Sometimes when he was traveling to local villages, he would dress up as Santa, and he was the first Santa that the village children had ever seen,” explains grandson-in-law Paul Brown. “When he was building the trading post in 1952, kids would call out, ‘Hello, Santa! Are you building a house?’ That’s where the name came from.”

Santa Claus House was a soda fountain, general store, and the first post office in North Pole. Nellie became the area’s first postmistress, and Con later became mayor of North Pole, where he served for nineteen years.

As the highway opened the area and Interior tourism boomed in the ‘50s, the store expanded from its local focus to reach a wider demographic. “People started coming to the Santa Claus House to get souvenirs and trinkets of their visits,” says Brown, who works as the establishment’s operations manager. “So we started to carry more visitor-focused products.”

In 1952, the Santa Claus House introduced one of its most popular items—Letter from Santa—which has since sent letters to millions of children (and adults) around the world.

“Because we were located between Eielson Air Force Base and Fort Wainwright, a lot of airmen would come to ask ‘Santa Claus’ to sign postcards to be sent to the airmen’s families stamped from the North Pole,” says Brown. “That evolved into our Letter from Santa program, which we still do today.”

As a result, Santa Claus House sends letters and items to pretty much every country. “We actually have a huge mail order presence that no one realizes,” says Brown. “I can confidently say that we’re doing more mail order than any other business in Alaska, as far as exporting products from Alaska to the rest of the world.”

Family-Owned Fun

Since the Millers started the business, more members of the family have become part of the Santa Claus House legacy. Their son, former state legislator Mike Miller, still serves as president, while their granddaughter, Carissa Brown, is the lead buyer and business manager. She runs the business day-to-day with Paul, her husband; their children, the fourth generation, now work in the store as well.

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To serve North Pole’s transient military population as well as people who come from all over the world to visit the Santa Claus House, the store carries a broad mix of products, ranging from Army and Air Force-themed stockings to pet gifts and ornaments featuring the names of favorite sports teams. The store also stocks products from more than 100 made-in-Alaska vendors as well as some international imports.

Vanessa Orr

“As Carissa got more and more active in buying, she made the conscious decision to provide products not only that tourists want but that locals would want as well,” says Brown. “A lot of specialty gift retailers are no longer in the Fairbanks area, so we’re very conscientious of other holidays, offering gifts not just for Christmas but for Halloween, Easter, Mother’s Day, and more.”

Con and Nellie Miller established Santa Claus House in 1952, the same year Everett Dahl created a subdivision named “North Pole” in hopes of attracting a toy factory.

Santa Claus House

Most of the items are exclusive to Santa Claus House. “Our biggest category is apparel because we want to provide something functional—we don’t want to just carry a bunch of trinkets,” Brown says. “On the Christmas side, our biggest seller is Christmas ornaments; a lot of people collect them as souvenirs of every place they visit.”

As a result of catering to both locals and tourists, Santa Claus House consistently ranks as the #1 or #2 attraction in the Interior. Even if people aren’t aware of its reputation, the fact that the world’s largest Santa Claus stands in the parking lot is sure to attract attention.

The Big Guy

Built in Enumclaw, Washington in 1968 for the Westlake Shopping Center in Seattle, the statue was first used as a gimmick to attract shoppers during the holiday season. It was put up each Christmas and then taken down, which was such a chore that the center decided to put the statue into storage. An association of Anchorage businesses purchased it, and the Santa statue stood outside the federal building in the early ‘80s before going into storage again. Santa Claus House bought the statue in 1983 and trucked it to North Pole, where it’s stood ever since.

“He’s never going to move again,” Brown says with a laugh. “We had to move him once, in 2017, which required a crane to relocate him.”

On top of a one-and-a-half-ton base, the 900-pound statue rises 50 feet high. “The circumference of his belly is 33 feet around,” Brown adds. “He’s pleasantly plump.”

Children who want to visit a more life-sized Santa can take advantage of the fact that a human Santa is at the store five days a week—every week of the year.

Santa and Mrs. Claus outside the Santa Claus House.

Santa Claus House

“Of course, he has a couple days off each week because he has to check on the workshop and make sure that things are getting properly prepared for Christmas,” says Brown, adding that Santa Claus is jolly enough to work seven days a week leading up to Christmas, when the shop gets “crazy busy.”

While it’s no surprise that people want to visit during winter holidays, Santa Claus House is a year-round destination, not subject to the seasonality of the visitor industry in the rest of the state.

“We have very heavy visitation in the summertime from people coming from around the world, and [we] see a slight drop in September and October, when most of the rest of the visitor industry in Alaska goes to sleep,” says Brown. “But then we’re back to heavy visitation during the holidays—not just from locals but from people throughout the Interior and the rest of the world.”

Winter tourism is a growing segment of the market. Brown says, “There’s a little lull in January, but then it’s aurora visitation season. And that leads us right back into summer season.”

The original Santa Claus House.

Santa Claus House

Letters through the Ages

As people have become more aware of Santa Claus House, it has expanded to meet the needs of those seeking the holiday spirit.

The Letter from Santa program, for example, has evolved into twenty-five different styles of letter, written for different situations. Parents can even customize a paragraph of the text or purchase the letter as a part of special packages that include other holiday-themed items.

“We’ve made some very minor variations of the letterhead over the decades to keep it timeless,” says Brown. “But we haven’t changed it significantly so that parents and grandparents can still recognize it as the same letter they got as children.”

After more than half a century, the product has become multigenerational. “The fun thing about our Santa letters is that people who received them when they were children now get them for their kids and grandkids and even great-grandchildren,” Brown says.

Letters on the store’s website testify to this time-honored tradition. “I have been ordering your letters for about twenty years,” reads one testimonial from Nancy. “I have not only sent them to my children, but I have sent them to friends and my parents and coworkers. Just about everyone I know has gotten a letter from Santa.”

Expressing her thanks, Nancy’s statement continues, “My children are older now, and they are starting to send them to friends… You don’t only bring smiles to children, but to us big children also.”

“I can confidently say that we’re doing more mail order than any other business in Alaska, as far as exporting products from Alaska to the rest of the world.”

—Paul Brown, Operations Manager, Santa Claus House

Since its inception, the store has grown from an 800-square-foot building on the Richardson Highway to an 18,000-square-foot space on St. Nicholas Drive.

“In 1974, the state rerouted the Richardson Highway, so Con and Nellie bought a new property alongside the new highway and doubled the square footage,” says Brown. “A 1978 expansion tripled the square footage, and another expansion in 2017/2018 more than doubled that.”

Santa Claus House now fills 18,000 square feet, but even that isn’t enough. “We’re about to expand again,” Brown says. “As the visitor industry has grown, we’ve grown.”

The upcoming expansion will include a 6-acre park, seasonal restaurant, and eventually shops around the perimeter of the park. Called Silver Bell Square, Brown says the area will have a Disneyland Main Street-type feel, offering different activities depending on the season.

“We’ll be opening the different pieces of it in stages,” starting next summer, according to Brown. He adds that the new addition will double the store’s workforce, and more expansions are planned once the first phase of Silver Bell Square is complete.

“We want to be more than just a store; we want to be a full-blown attraction,” he says. “Think of us as a very small-scale Disney. Over time, there will be shopping, restaurants, activities, and lodging. Our goal is to make this a full-scale resort.”

Sharing the Holiday Spirit

Providing a place where people can enjoy the magic of Christmas year-round is not only the company’s mission—it’s their passion as well.

Executive Assistant Heather Burke has worked in various roles at Santa Claus House for the past eighteen years, and she can’t imagine working anywhere else.

“Not only is the family wonderful to work for, but you can’t beat it being Christmas all year long,” she says with a laugh. “The guests that come in are excited to experience Christmas no matter what time of year it is, and that’s wonderful to see.”

Brown admits, “It sounds cliché and corny, but being a business called the Santa Claus House located in North Pole, Alaska, we kind of feel like we speak in the voice of Santa.” As he puts it, “We are guardians of the Santa story and in perpetuating the magic of Christmas.”

It’s a business, but it’s also a vibe. “All the hiring we do, our customer service, even the media interviews we give are all about protecting the magic of Christmas, not just for children, but for people of all ages,” Brown says. “This is a happy place, and when people come in, we do everything we can to share the joy and spirit of Christmas so that they leave happier than when they entered. We are the embodiment of the holiday spirit.”

Charming holiday displays help visitors get in the holiday spirit.

Vanessa Orr

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Welcome to the 2024 Best of Alaska Business special section! For the ninth time we invited our readers to tell us which Alaska businesses they love the most, this year in forty-four categories. Throughout the month of March, you told us who should be featured in these pages, and we're thrilled to be able to publish the results.
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