.- The much bemoaned commercialization of Christmas reaches a whole new level in North Pole, Alaska — a town that celebrates Santa 365 days a year.
The giant candy cane street lights are a permanent feature in this northern town, where Santa is available for pictures in July. In fact the town’s economy revolves around the selling of Christmas year round.
Amid this tourism spectacle, Father Robert Fath and parishioners at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in North Pole try to focus on the season of Advent and the true meaning of the Incarnation.
Following the historic traditions of the church, Christians are meant to spend Advent “in anxious anticipation” of both Christ’s incarnation into the world at Bethlehem, and his return at the end of time, Father Fath told the Catholic Anchor.
This focus can prove challenging in a town where emphasis on Santa and toys continues through the penitential season of Advent.
Sometimes it gets to Father Fath.
“I do tend to rail against Santa Claus,” he said, “particularly the 50 foot monstrosity down the street.”
He refers to a 50-foot permanent statue of Santa in town. Father Fath jokes that someday he’s going to build a 51-foot statue of the real Saint Nicholas of Myra, a fourth century bishop whose legend inspired the modern-day Santa.
In North Pole, there is also the Santa Claus House, a year-round Santa available for photos, live reindeer on display, and streets with permanent names like Snowman Lane, Kris Kringle, Mistletoe, and Holiday Road.
How did all of this come about, since the town of North Pole is actually 1,700 miles from the real North Pole?
Banking on Christmas
Like many Alaska towns North Pole is relatively young. According to the city’s website, the first settlers arrived near mile 15 of the Richardson Highway in 1944 and staked their claim.
By 1952, others had joined them with the promise of electrical power.
What to call this new town? Someone came up with the idea of “North Pole” thinking it might attract toy manufacturers with the lure of a “made in North Pole” logo. Although that idea didn’t pan out, the notion that a Disney-like Santa town might spring up did.
Today, tourists flock to North Pole, and letters by the thousands arrive for Santa from all over the world. When a Catholic parish was established in 1975, it was natural that it be named Saint Nicholas.
Keeping Christmas Special
Lisa Sagers is the parish youth worker. Unlike Father Fath, who is a lifelong Alaskan, Sagers came to the Christmas capital of the world from Los Angeles 10 years ago.
When she phones colleagues in the Lower-48 and identifies herself as being from St. Nicholas in North Pole, she laughs when people say, “You’re kidding, right?”
She finds some aspects of her adopted home “quaint” and marvels at the fact that a local man legally changed his name to Kris Kringle.
But she admires the way Father Fath manages to make Christmas special in a town that sometimes grows weary of the spectacle.
“Father Robert has been amazing. His family had so many rich traditions and he’s able to share these with our youth,” Sagers said. “At St. Nicholas, we understand when the tree and the lights should go up.”
Heart of Christmas
Father Fath has a very young parish with 500 youth under age 18. He enjoys telling them stories about the real Saint Nicholas, while emphasizing that we “anticipate the gift of Christ, not toys.”
Father Fath makes sure the children know the history of the famous saint — a man who never lived in the North Pole.
“I like to emphasize that Saint Nicholas was really from Turkey,” Father Fath said.
On the Sunday nearest the Dec. 6 Feast of Saint Nicholas, children in faith formation classes put their shoes outside their classroom doors to be filled with candy. But even this is part of an older European custom celebrating Saint Nicholas, not Santa.
Father Fath then celebrates Mass and speaks of the real man, instead of the one smothered in cultural kitsch.
He also points to the charitable works that the parish does during Advent and the way parishioners, especially the youth, focus on giving. Food collections and adoptions of needy families fill the weeks before Christmas.
Letters to Santa
While the faithful at St. Nicholas certainly strive to keep the old traditions, some parishioners participate in more modern ones as well, like helping to answer the deluge of letters that arrive at the Post Office for Santa each December.
Parishioner Raymond Clark was the local postmaster for nine years. Before his retirement in 2003, he witnessed the “extremely large volume of mail” from children all over the world.
Clark said many parishioners participate in local volunteer efforts to answer the barrage of letters.
The most touching letters, he said, arrive in childish scrawl and have no return address. For Clark, the community effort to read and answer these letters impacts his spirituality.
“Your faith,” he said, “and how you practice your faith are what make Christmas unique.”
Posted with permission from Catholic Anchor, official newspaper for the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska.