When Clement C. Moore in 1822 wrote his famous poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” little did he know that his lovable old elf who rode in a sleigh drawn by eight tiny reindeer would capture the hearts of millions of children for centuries to come.
The origin of Santa Claus in America is difficult to trace, but is believed to have been brought to our shores by German immigrants. Santa as we know him is a product of a number of cultures.
In the 17th century, settlers of Dutch, German and other backgrounds practiced different customs at Christmastime. Santa was known as Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Sinterklaas and Father Christmas, among others. Each of these were both loved and feared by children who believed that punishment or reward was based upon behavior during the year.
Personally, my two sisters and I were told “Be good, or Santa will leave you a chunk of coal!” Oh my, what an incentive to be good!
Santa really became popularized in 1863, when Harper’s Weekly had an illustrator named Thomas Nast, who created today’s image of a rather jolly old elf with a white beard, carrying a sack of toys for good boys and girls.
With this historic background, Santa in every possible way has become collectible. It is impossible to list all items in this category. However, collectors rarely limit their collections to segments – they just want Santa.
Some notable items are banks, candy containers, printed graphics, toys, ornaments, trade cards, greeting cards and calendars.
Today, most of us recall Coca Cola using Santa in all advertising during December and how we would look forward to each year’s Santa.
Santa collectibles can be divided into two distinct eras, pre-1900 and post-1900.
Most pre-1900 items featured Father Christmas and were produced in Germany. Father Christmas could be in robes of brown, blue, green, purple, yellow and red.
Advanced collectors sometimes searched for one certain color. Yellow seemed to be most difficult. When asked why yellow was so hard to find, the reply was, “No proof.” However, it was thought to be out of respect for the papacy adornments of primary yellow.
Blown glass ornaments from Germany are vigorously sought because of their surviving 125-plus years and being so fragile.
At the turn of the century, cast iron banks became popular, as the toy would also help a child understand the lessons of thrift. What child could resist placing a coin in Santa’s hand, pressing a lever and watching Santa place the coin in an open chimney?
Shepard Hardware, Arcade and J.M. Harper manufactured Santa banks. Collectors, beware of reproductions unless you just want the joy of the past.
Father Christmas figures from the 18th century were often very stern faced and carried a switch. If you were a good little boy or girl, the switch was not needed, and a jolly St. Nicholas would warm the child’s thoughts of the real meaning of Christmas. And a gift might be your reward.
The December holiday season encouraged the items produced to commemorate the birth of Christ.
In 1930, during the Great Depression, Japan started making all kinds of Santa items. Surprisingly, many resembled German made, however they lacked the fine facial details and in some cases were actually ugly.
They sold for as little as 5 to 10 cents and were popular party favors. They too are very collectible.
During our antique shows in the 1970s and ’80s, we cannot recall ever not selling every Santa item we exhibited. The common query at every show was, “Got any Santa items?”
Oh, what fun being a collector of Santa and Christmas. A professor of design in California has such a large collection he takes two months to decorate his home. Last year, 5,000 guests visited his home!
He admits his collecting obsession has become very expensive as good artifacts are hard to find, but the search goes on.
This is my 40th column for The Bluffton Sun, and I must admit that Santa brought a smile to me with every word. Many thanks to several advanced collector friends for their input in this holiday column.
Happy Santa Day to all and to all a joyous New Year!
Jerry Glenn is co-owner of Reminisce in Bluffton, where sports collectibles are bought and sold.