It’s about time Santa Claus turned the tables on us. We only have to remember one of him, but His Redness has to keep track of the names, addresses, personal wishes, naughty/nice status, and illegal home invasion strategies for every child on the planet.
A visit to one particular Lawrenceville row house reveals us mere humans as once again way over-simplifying the wide world of Santadom. Why, there’s not just one Jolly St. Nick! No, here you’ll find Robot Santa and Motor Scooter Santa, Glowing Cologne Santa and Tootsie Santa. They share mantle space with Santa-Wan Kenobi, Light-up Cookie Jar Santa, Wind-Up Articulated Santa, a two-dimensional Pepsi-Pimping Santa, and Santaralli—the nickname a portmanteau of Ol’ Bowl-Full-of-Jelly and the Italian holiday cookie affixed to his tin foil-wrapped belly.
In between, there are kindly Santas, smiling Santas, mischieviously-winking Santas, and slightly-menacing Santas. Tin spinning top Santas rub red-robed elbows with home ec project Santas, crafts-gone-wrong Santas, ceramic Santas, and various sleighs laden not with presents for good boys and girls, but perversely with even more tiny Santas as cargo.
“It’s because I love Christmas,” Paul Schifino tells The Orbit in one of the year’s most explosive revelations. That love started early. “When I was kid, there was this man in our neighborhood, Mr. Mayo, who would dress up like Santa Claus, visit all the houses with children, and every one of us got a toy.”
The artifice of Mr. Mayo attempting to fool the youth of 1960s Carnegie with his dime store red suit and add-on white whiskers mattered not. “I didn’t even care that I was lied to,” Schifino says, “I’m just such a fan of Christmas.”
The collecting bug began some forty years ago with a particular figure found at a long-gone Carson Street antique shop. That wind-up Santa, made of molded tin in 1960s Japan, moved in elaborate head-turning, arm-oscillating ways. Paul gave the original to his sister when he recently acquired a superior edition that included the original Merry Xmas sign. [See photo at top.]
Since then, the collection has grown, and grown, and grown. While this season’s display occupies both surfaces of a big, double-decker mantlepiece and nearby cradenza—let’s say hundreds of Santas—a less-restrained decorator could have taken over the entire house with what remains in the basement archives.
“I have enough Santas to do all of that,” Schifino says, motioning past a pair of big antique curio cabinets and additional shelving, “But I like that these get put away after Christmas and then I bring them out once a year for the holiday.”
It seems every Santa in Schifino’s collection includes an origin story. This little ceramic Santa was handed down from his grandparents, its legs glued back on after after a tragic fall; that one a gift from a neighbor. Some were mini craft projects recycling Santa-themed candy packaging; others were bedazzled by friends who know just who to gift a tiny Santa, wrapped in tin foil, with an ancient cookie strapped to his chest like a suicide bomber with a sweet tooth.
By far, though, the majority of the collection originates in the region’s flea markets, antique shops, and thrift stores. “Most of these cost two or three dollars,” Schifino told us. “Of course I could buy them on the Internet, but that takes all the fun out of it.”
“I buy Santas all year—especially during the off-season,” says Schifino, “The actor Don Brockett—he was Chef Brockett on Mr. Rogers—also collected Santas and when I’d see him at flea markets I’d always try to stay ahead of him so I could get to the Santas first.”
Christmas—and the holiday season, writ large—means a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, it is indeed “the most wonderful time of the year”—but we know that’s not a universal truth. For the rest of us, the emotions that kick in as soon as the days grow dark, the colored lights turn on, and Christmas music takes over the oldies station are much more nuanced.
The sentimentality of the season may be the toughest nut for many to swallow. But even for your Bah, Humbug-curious author, seeing this mass of glowing, grinning Santas, lovingly brought out for their once-yearly starring role, is enough to warm the soul.
Each little Santa bears not physical gifts, but memories and imaginations—of who owned these figures before they came into Paul’s collection and how they arrived here, now. They’re souvenirs of Sunday trips to the flea market and mementos of friends and family past and present. That may be Santa’s greatest gift of all.
The Collectors is an Orbit series focused on interesting personal collections and the people who assemble them. If you know of someone with a great collection, please let us know.
See also: The Collectors: KISS and Tell with Bruce Gleason (Pittsburgh Orbit, June 23, 2019)