Glencairn Museum News | Number 1, 2015
A Century of Santa: Images of Santa Claus in the 1800s (Figure 1) was co-curated by Glencairn’s curator, Ed Gyllenhaal, and the National Christmas Center’s founder and curator, Jim Morrison. Almost all of the objects are on loan from the Center, many originating from Jim’s personal collection. The two museums are hoping to collaborate on more exhibitions in the future, and plans are being made for A Century of Santa to travel to other venues after it leaves Glencairn. The editors of Glencairn Museum News thought our readers might like to know more about Jim (a.k.a. Santa, Jr.) and the National Christmas Center and Museum—his brainchild—which is located in Paradise, Pennsylvania, just outside of Lancaster.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born 75 years ago in a little town in South Jersey called Haddonfield. I grew up and lived there until I went to Temple University.
Do you have any special Christmas memories from your childhood?
One of my most important memories was the day after Thanksgiving in Philadelphia, when they unveiled the store windows that were decorated for Christmas. That’s when Christmas started for me—my two-dimensional storybooks became three dimensional in these windows. That was before cartoons and television. Everyone went into the city that day to see the start of Christmas. It was a magical time. When I was a child my parents wanted me to go to bed early on Christmas Eve so that Santa could come. But of course a little child on Christmas Eve can’t get to sleep. I went to bed with an empty stocking, but in the morning I found that Santa had been to our home. Santa also brought the tree. That was the magic of Christmas.
The collection at the National Christmas Center and Museum is impressive in both size and scope. When did you first begin collecting Christmas memorabilia?
I remember going into the five-and-dime store in 1946, where I saw some little Santa Claus Christmas tree light bulbs. They cost 34 cents, and I didn’t have any money, but I really wanted them. But the next day they had been marked down to 17 cents, so I bought all nine of them with some money I had been given by my aunts. I brought the lights home and discovered that the sockets were larger than the ones we had on our Christmas tree. But from that point on I started buying Christmas things. I would get a quarter if I was good when we went to Market Street in Philadelphia, and I would spend it on Christmas things in Woolworths (Figure 3).
There’s a very impressive toy train exhibit, beneath a gigantic Christmas tree, at the National Christmas Center and Museum. Did you have a train under your Christmas tree when you were little?
On Thanksgiving Day 1946 my brothers-in-law were home from the war, and after dinner one of them went to the basement. He was building something called a platform. I didn’t know what it was, but it was green and he was drilling holes in it. That Christmas it was under the tree with my train running around on it. And I remember that when everybody had gone home on Christmas night, I turned all the lights off. My mother was washing the dishes, and I remember lying on the floor watching the train, riding on the train [in my imagination], and looking up through the branches from under the tree. And so I’ve recreated what I thought I saw as a little child at the National Christmas Center (Figure 4).
How did the National Christmas Center and Museum get started, and what is its mission?
As I grew to adulthood I began to realize that the shopping malls were changing Christmas, and the little towns didn’t decorate the windows for Christmas any more. This museum has been a dream of mine for at least 50 years. I wanted to preserve Christmas. I want the little children to have the magic that I had as a child. A lot of people still keep the Christmas traditions, but a lot of people have forgotten—it’s too much of a bother, and they’re in the frenzy of buying things. But the most important thing is to remind people what Christmas is really all about: the birth of Christ.
Your museum in Paradise, PA, has 20,000 feet of exhibit space. What did this building used to be before you converted it?
I had tried three or four times to do a Christmas museum, including one in the Flatiron Building in New York, but it never worked out. Eventually we found this building. It was once a restaurant that seated 1,000 people, but it had fallen on hard times. In 1998 we were able to raise some money and we opened that same year, with just a few exhibits at first. It has grown every year since then. The last exhibit our visitors see, “The First Christmas,” has been here since the beginning, and I don’t think we can make it any better.
When you walk through the exhibits, you can’t help but overhear people talking with each other about their own memories of Christmas. Is there something special about Christmas memories?
All the decorations here at the museum, other than the ones we have made ourselves, have been in someone else’s home at Christmastime. They were lovingly wrapped up at the end of the season, and then the next Christmas they were unwrapped and displayed again. When people come in and see a bird ornament that was on their grandmother’s tree, or a little house that was under their own Christmas tree, it takes them back to their family celebrations. That little child is still alive in all of us—our memories of childhood and Christmas. I feel that there’s no other day in our lives like Christmas.
Why do you think Santa Claus has continued to be an important part of Christmas for hundreds of years?
Santa Claus is Saint Nicholas. He was brought by the Dutch to New Amsterdam (New York) as Sinterklaas. Santa Claus is carrying on the ministry of Saint Nicholas, giving anonymously his gifts of love to children. I want people to know that Santa Claus is not an imaginary figure—he really lived.
Who is “Santa, Jr.,” and what does he tell the children who come to see him at the National Christmas Center and Museum?
Kids used to ask if I was Santa Claus, and I would say, “Yes, I’m Santa.” But sometimes they had seen another Santa at the mall, and they would ask me questions about that. So now I tell them I’m Santa, Jr.—that Santa is my Daddy, and I want to be Santa when I grow up. I tell each child that I know they get into trouble sometimes, but they are on my list of good children. I ask how they are doing in school, and if they can study a little harder just for me, and they always nod yes. I tell them I’m proud of them, and that I love them. I think a small child needs to hear that, and that’s what Santa, Jr. does.
Do the kids ever tug on your beard to see if it’s real?
They do it once in a while, but usually it’s the old ladies who tug on my beard! The kids are pretty good about that.
What is the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame, and when were you inducted into it?
There’s a group of over 3,000 Santas who have signed the “Santa Claus Oath.” [One part of the oath: “I know the ‘real reason for the season’ and know that I am blessed to be able to be a part of it.” Another: “I acknowledge that some of the requests I will hear will be difficult and sad. I know in these difficulties there lies an opportunity to bring a spirit of warmth, understanding and compassion.”] Out of the 3,000, they have inducted about 40 people now for their portrayal of Santa and what they do to bring the truth of Santa Claus to the children. This includes Edmund Gwenn from the original movie Miracle on 34th Street. I was inducted in 2012, along with Mickey Rooney [who played Kris Kringle/Santa in the 1970 Rankin-Bass television special, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town].
What is the best thing about working at the National Christmas Center and Museum?
I think the best thing is reminding families and children about the birth of Christ—what Christmas is really all about. Another thing is that we’re making people happy. I ask people when they are leaving the museum if they’re happier than when they came in, and they all say yes. It’s incredible to be able to make people you don’t even know happy—that’s pretty remarkable.
Your museum has hundreds of Nativities on exhibit. Tell us about the 3/4 life-sized, wood-carved Nativity, which is approximately one hundred years old.
When Target bought the Marshall Fields & Company department store they found this Nativity locked in a room, up on one of the storage floors (Figure 11). Luckily they saved it, but they didn’t know what to do with it. They sent me pictures, and I told them I would love to have it, but at that time we didn’t have the money to pack and professionally move them. Then they found out more about us and I got a call the next day, saying that Target would pack the figures and send them to us. I think it’s one of the finest Nativities you will find in this country. Most of the life-sized, wood-carved Nativities don’t have the camels and attendants; this one even has bagpipers. I believe it was made in the northern area of Italy.
Tell us about the National Christmas Center and Museum’s very large walk-through exhibit, The First Christmas, where visitors make their own trek from “Nazareth” to “Bethlehem” to see the Grotto where the Nativity took place.
When we started the National Christmas Center we wanted to build the Grotto and show the first Christmas (Figure 12). And then I started thinking we should show a little more, such as the angel and the innkeeper. And then it turned into the whole journey—what the life and journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem possibly was like. We built their house in Nazareth to show the way they lived, and also a carpenter shop. During the journey they may have taken rest at a Caravansary [like a modern-day highway truckstop] so we show that, too, and then we walk with them into Bethlehem, to the very first Christmas. People come out of the exhibit and say they feel like they’ve walked with Mary and Joseph, which is wonderful.
You go out of your way to speak personally with many of the thousands of visitors who come to the National Christmas Center and Museum each year. What do people usually say they enjoyed the most?
When I ask the children what they like the best about the National Christmas Center, 80% to 85% of the children say the baby Jesus and the journey to Bethlehem. And that really blows me away. With the children it’s not Santa Claus and the toys and the trains and the North Pole and the elves; it’s the birth of Christ. That’s overwhelming to me.
The National Christmas Center and Museum is open through January 4, 2015, and will then reopen in March. Glencairn Museum’s A Century of Santa and World Nativities exhibitions are open through January 11, 2015.
A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.