In my mind, the Christmas season and the anticipation of Santa’s arrival began the day the Sears Wish Book appeared in the mailbox. And, oh, what a glorious book it was—filled with the heart’s desire of many a child! I was careful to write the item’s name and the page number on my list, which was promptly posted to Santa.
And then the wait for the “jolly old elf ” began.
This year, the wait will be a little shorter, as the Thomas T. Taber Museum of the Lycoming County Historical Society (www.tabermuseum.org) will exhibit a display of Santa Claus figures from Saturday, December 3, through Saturday, January 7.
Children have been waiting for Santa Claus and his European counterparts for centuries. The origins of the appearance of a kindly man who would bring presents to good boys and girls probably started with stories surrounding the gift-bestowing, benevolent St. Nicholas. However, the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, the French Pere Noel, and Babbo Natale in Italy certainly influenced the images that emerged. Though the United States had embraced European Santa traditions, perhaps the largest influence on the popular perception of Santa was a campaign by Coca Cola, which commissioned the illustrator Haddon Sundblom to create an image of Santa Claus. Sundblom used Clement Moore’s classic poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (’Twas the Night Before Christmas)—composed during a sleigh ride, for inspiration. The poem, first published in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on December 23, 1823, portrayed St. Nick as a warm, friendly, pleasantly plump, and human Santa.
“My Hat’s Off” was the first of Sundblom’s Santas. It appeared in ads during December 1931 to remind people that Coke could be consumed all year ’round, not just on summer afternoons. Sundblom’s artistic renderings quickly became the standard for depictions of the “jolly old elf.” In the January 1, 1881, edition of Harper’s Weekly, illustrator and political cartoonist Thomas Nast published an image that endures as the popular image of Santa—the one with a fat belly, rosy cheeks, white mustache, and beard.
In 1897, eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon questioned her father, Dr. Philip O’Hanlon, about the truth—did Santa exist? O’Hanlon suggested that she write to The Sun, a prominent New York City newspaper of the time, assuring her that “if you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” Editor Francis Church framed his famous answer in an editorial entitled “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”
To place the answer in twenty-first century vernacular, his reply went viral.
Santa’s opposite, a Belsnickel, might also make a Christmas-time visit to deposit lumps of coal in the stocking of a naughty child. Belsnickel originated in the Rhineland and came to America with the Pennsylvania Germans. In this tradition, Belsnickel visited homes prior to Christmas and knew exactly which children had misbehaved! A rap on the window or door prompted the children to answer a question or sing a song. In exchange for the performance, candies would be thrown on the floor. If the children jumped too quickly for the treats, Belsnickel might switch them. Although he may seem like a harsh character, children anticipated his annual return.
Perhaps the oldest Santa in the Taber Museum exhibit is a cloth depiction based on Nast’s rendition of Santa. Edwin Peck of Brooklyn, New York, designed the fabric pattern for a cut-and-sew doll, which then would be put together and stuffed with a cotton and animal hair mixture. He offered this to the public in December 1886.
Toy companies quickly realized the potential for selling dolls resembling the lovable character. Albert Schoenhut, a German immigrant, began producing toys in Philadelphia in 1872. His company led the market in the production of flexible toys, including a fully accessorized circus. They ultimately increased production to produce dolls, dollhouses, blocks, and wooden toys. A Schoenhut roly poly toy, circa 1910, has been loaned to this exhibit and features a round Santa.
An important Santa, recently donated to the permanent collection, is a mechanized version that once delighted shoppers at the L.L. Stearns Department Store in downtown Williamsport. He is not traditionally dressed, clothed instead in a light turquoise jacket, breeches, and white boots accented with gold roses.
A number of signed collector’s items have also been loaned to the museum. Sue Miller produced a tall and lanky Father Christmas, and Sharon Tishler of Benton designed a Santa with a long scroll—no names written on it. Kay Stamm of Mifflinburg created Belsnickels, based on original designs.
Admission to the museum is $7.50 for adults, $6 for senior citizens (sixty-five and over), and $5 for children three to twelve years old. The museum is located at 858 W. Fourth St.; Phone (570) 326-3326.