- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 28, 2017

SANTA CLAUS, Ind. (AP) - What began more than six months ago as an effort to get a section of an Indiana highway named after Raymond Joseph “Jim” Yellig, also known as “Santa Jim,” of Santa Claus culminated Saturday in a posthumous Sagamore of the Wabash award for the man who created the image of Santa Claus Americans know and love.

The Hoosier Santas organization, made up of men and women who costume play as Santa and Mrs. Claus, headed up the effort to honor Yellig with assistance from the Santa Claus Museum and Village. Timothy “Santa Tim” Etter was behind the petition that made its way to former Gov. Mike Pence’s desk. Etter got the idea to honor Yellig after a visit to a notable Hoosiers exhibit at the Indiana State Museum. Etter couldn’t help but notice Yellig wasn’t in the exhibit. John Mellencamp was, though.

“I like Jack and Diane as much as anybody, but (Mellencamp) is no Jim Yellig,” Etter said.

He and the other Hoosier Santas thought Yellig ought to be recognized statewide. On Dec. 25, 2016, Yellig officially got state recognition when Pence signed a Sagamore of the Wabash, Indiana’s highest civilian honor, for Yellig. On Saturday, Santas and Mrs. Clauses from around the state gathered in the 1880s Santa Claus church at the Santa Claus Museum and Village to honor the life of Yellig. Phillip Wenz, the Santa that wrote the Santa Claus Oath, presented newsreel footage of Yellig playing Santa Claus around the country that the Hoosier Santas collected in their research on Yellig.

“To understand who Santa Jim was, you have to understand the time he lived in,” Wenz said.

Born in 1894, Yellig first donned the Santa Suit in 1914 when the Navy ship he served on during World War I decided to host a Christmas party for the children in New York City. In their research, the Hoosier Santas found photos from that Christmas party. They gifted them and the video tribute to Yellig’s daughter, Pat Koch, and the Santa Claus Museum.

As World War I raged on, Yellig, a deeply faithful Catholic, prayed that if he made it through the war he would “forever be Santa Claus.” As history shows, Yellig made it through the war and kept his promise to God.

“He became Santa to be a servant of God,” Wenz said.

Yellig appeared in his first parade in 1931, but the first video footage of him in a parade isn’t until 1935, as far as the Hoosier Santas could find. Koch remembers the last parade her father marched in - the 1983 Dale Fall Festival. Yellig was 89, and it was a warm fall day. Still, Yellig put on the many-layered Santa suit, hopped in his sleigh and rode in the parade. Koch remembers telling her dad to take the coat off at the end of the parade because it was so hot. He refused.

“No, no, no. No. There might be a child looking out a window,’ he said,” Koch recalled. “He did not want that faith (in Santa) to be damaged ever, ever, ever.”

When they got home and removed the jacket, Koch said, he was soaked with perspiration, but he hadn’t complained once.

Yellig’s persistent portrayal of Santa Claus has inspired generations of Santas around the state to don the white beard and red suit in an effort to spread compassion, cheer and the true meaning of Christmas.

“(Yellig) didn’t play Santa Claus,” Wenz said. “When he put the suit on, he became Santa Claus.”

Yellig’s role as Santa didn’t end with the suit, though. Beginning after World War I, Yellig helped Santa Claus‘ first post master, James Martin, answer children’s letters to Santa that wound up in the small Indiana town. When Martin left, Yellig made sure the tradition continued. Koch, 85, started helping answer letters when she was 11. She remembers her father bringing letters home to answer at night, and her mother, Isabella, yelling at him to get the table cloth off the table before he got ink on it. Today, volunteer “elves” answer hundreds of letters by hand every year, a tradition proudly carried on by Koch and the Santa Claus Museum.

Sometimes, Koch recalled, Santa business interrupted dinner. A child would call their home, and Yellig would get up in the middle of dinner to talk to the child.

More than anything, though, Koch remembers her father’s strong faith - in God, in the church and in the town of Santa Claus. She implored those in attendance Saturday to keep faith in the parts of life worth believing in.

“They are us, and they are what make great human beings,” she said. “They are what made him great.”

Koch accepted the Sagamore of the Wabash on behalf of her father Saturday. In closing, she reminded the audience that “life is way too short not to believe in Santa Claus.”

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Source: Jasper Herald, http://bit.ly/2mDV1Vu

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Information from: The Herald, http://www.dcherald.com

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