OK, so I will tell you. I was visiting my two beautiful nieces, age 16 and 13, in Southern Indiana this summer, and they wanted to take me and my progeny to a theme park. We'd visited Six Flags the year before, so they suggested we try out Holiday World, about an hour away. Besides having lots of rides, they said, it has a nice water park where you can cool off on a hot summer day.
I consented, but only if they'd let me stop and photograph the "Welcome to Santa Claus" sign on the city's outskirts. (It didn't say "Hometown of Jay Cutler" in small letters, but who knows, someday it just might.)
My two nieces were unimpressed when I informed them that Santa Claus is the hometown of Jay Cutler. "Who's he?" they asked, rolling their eyes. (They're big college football fans, but they've been raised to like Purdue and the Big Ten.) "Just wait," I insisted. "Someday you're gonna hear about him."
When a star quarterback's hometown has a name like "Santa Claus, Ind." sportswriters have a way of fixating upon it. "The best thing about Santa Claus is the people there. It's a great place to be from," Cutler told a bunch of writers at the recent SEC Media Days. "The worst thing is all the questions you have to answer about it."
The metropolis of Santa Claus (pop. 1,053) is set among rolling hills in rural Southern Indiana, just a few miles off I-64, the interstate that connects Louisville and St. Louis. After passing through the scenic Hoosier National Forest, you exit at state road 162 and head south. Soon Holiday World shows up on your right, and the town of Santa Claus is dead ahead.
Just how did it happen that a small town in Hoosier country is named after a mythical, jolly old elf? German settlers, it turns out, named the town for the legendary symbol of Christmas in 1820. The Holiday World theme park, originally known as Santa Claus Land, opened in 1946 with kiddie rides and a deer park, and existed for years as one of those quaint American roadside attractions. It expanded over the years into a full-fledged tourist mecca that now draws 'em in from all over the Midwest.
Generally if you've seen one theme park you've seen them all, but Holiday World is not your average Walley World... it's just kitschy enough to make it uniquely appealing. The sections of the park are oriented around holidays (there's a "Halloween World," a "Fourth of July World," you get the idea). In "Christmas World" carols are constantly piped in over the speakers; you can purchase tree ornaments all year round, and a statue of Santa Claus cohabitates very near another one of baby Jesus in a full-size manger scene.
Roller coaster enthusiasts might think Holiday World's total of two coasters is too few, but the youngsters in my party all agreed the two coasters "rocked." The Raven was "voted the top roller coaster in the world" by those who vote on such things. Me, I preferred to spend my time in the "Splashin' Safari" water park, where I got a good idea what it'd be like if everyone in America wore bathing suits all the time (not a pretty sight).
But back to Santa Claus, the town. The theme park is a microcosm of the Rockwell-esque town... friendly, clean, wholesome, fresh-scrubbed, teeming with family values. It's like a time capsule where idyllic, smalltown America has been preserved. Such is the place that spawned Jay Cutler-- it's to the Vandy quarterback what Smallville is to Superman.
"Everybody knows everybody in Santa Claus," Jay's mom Sandy Cutler told me last week at Dore Jam. "It's safe. You don't have to worry about your kids going two or three blocks over."
"It's a close-knit community," added Jay's father Jack, a state policeman by trade. "A lot of people that live there have lived there all their lives, and grew up there as kids.
"With Holiday World, it really brings in the people from out of town. It's a nice, small community to raise a family. It's a rural area, but you're only about 50 miles from Evansville and about 20 miles from Jasper, so there are plenty of places to shop."
Not surprisingly, Christmastime means big doings in little Santa Claus. Folks drive in from miles around just to get that postmark on their Christmas cards. And it's almost a requirement that the residents of Santa Claus decorate their homes in spectacular fashion for the holidays.
"In the winter we get people from all over the place coming in to look at the light show," Jack Cutler said. "It's a heck of a light show that we put on.
"We always decorated our yard... not to the extent that some people do. We're not exactly the Griswolds from the movie, but..."
Basketball is supposedly king in Indiana, but Heritage Hills High School, where Jay prepped for college, is better known for its outstanding football teams. With Cutler at the controls the Patriots went 15-0 and brought back the big trophy from state in Class 3A in 2000.
So if it seems like a contradiction for a quarterback from a small, folksy, rural town in America's breadbasket to be calling the signals at a prestigious, elite school in the South... well, maybe it's because Santa Claus itself is a town of peculiar juxtapositions. It struck me as a little odd on one of the hottest days of summer to be listening to Christmas music and posing next to a huge statue of Santa.
On the other hand, if Jay and his mates have the season that I think they're getting ready to have, who knows? All of us Vandy fans could be spending the Christmas holidays someplace where it's nice and warm.