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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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19th Century Santa Postcard. Photo courtesy of Rosemary McKittrick.
He is the moonlight caller who arrives once a year when everyone is sound asleep. From the world of perpetual cold, the snow-frosted traveler in the red suit, white beard and pink cheeks has many faces in many countries.

His Yuletide figure is a welcome site year after year as he’s resurrected from the Christmas box one more time. An emissary of love and hope, Santa’s appeal is universal and Christmas remains the most important holiday in our nation.

Nearly everyone’s basement or attic has some example of Santa somewhere.

His story is old. European settlers brought him to America. American authors gave him a makeover transforming him into a blend of various cultures and traditions. His face is one of the most recognizable in the world.

In his 1809 book “Father Knickerbacker’s History of New York” humorist Washington Irving pictured Santa dressed in a red-clad outfit, pipe in hand, and riding over the treetops in a horse-drawn wagon dropping gifts down the chimney of “good” kids. His book was meant to be a satire about New York but went a long way in transforming Saint Nicholas into Santa Claus.

Author Clement Moore used Irving’s description of Santa as a starting point for his 1822 classic “The Night Before Christmas”. Moore replaced Irving's horse-and-wagon with eight tiny reindeer and a sleigh. He also named the reindeer. Moore originally wrote the poem as Christmas Eve entertainment for his own kids but it ended up as a Christmas tradition.

Illustrator Thomas Nast picked up his pen and drew a series of Santa drawings for “Harper’s Weekly” in 1863. His Santa was a kinder, softer-looking old guy, also bearded in a red suit and smoking a pipe. Nast’s Santa was also given a home in the North Pole.

But it was artist Haddon Sundblom and his 1931 Coca-Cola ads that gave us the jolly, chubby, twinkle-eyed, dude with the rosy cheeks and big smile we’ve come to know today. Leave it to the advertising industry to refine tradition.

It’s no surprise people collect these festive effigies from the past. Santa brings back positive memories. Most of us are still kids when it comes to the “big guy”.

Vintage Santas are collectible. They have an old world charm about them that’s hard to resist. The older Santas were made with cotton batting, paper mache, chenille, twigs and die cut scraps. They’re reproducing them today but most likely they’ll be missing the patina of age that only a vintage Santa has.

Santa’s facial expressions are all over the map too. Sometimes he’s smiling. Other times he looks so, so serious like something dreadful has just transpired in the toy room. Some Santas show up like aging wizards. Others resemble kindly old gentlemen.

The original materials didn’t hold up well over time. So expect to see some wear. If Santa looks new, he probably is. The cast iron Santas are among the more expensive pieces.

The early German Santa’s almost always have blue eyes. Many of the early Santas also display no teeth. But not all of them. I have seen a number of aging Santa’s with teeth and their likeness always seems a bit sinister to me.

Age, rarity and condition determine value in this arena.

If you’re interested in collecting Christmas items, Santas are a good place to start. Many are affordable, easy to find and prevalent.

All of us have a unique image of what Santa should look like but his essential qualities of generosity and kindness are pretty darn universal.

Merry Christmas! Thanks for another great year.

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