Ho, ho, ho: Collectors looking for Santa

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Hubley Santa Claus sleigh. Father Christmas is drawn in the sleigh by two galloping reindeer, enameled in white with red, black and gilt trim. Credit: James Julia Inc.

Santa Claus is known by many different names and his likeness has been used on a diverse group of items. They range from the family Christmas tree ornaments and decorations to toys, illustrations and books.

If you are a serious collector of antique toys you may have to pay more than $2,000 at auction for a Hubley cast-iron sleigh with Santa and reindeer. Less expensive are the plastic Santa sleighs made in Japan in the 1950s; some can be found for less than $100.

Santa has been around for hundreds of years. What you call him depends on what country you reside in.

One of the earliest Santa images can be traced to 200 AD and the harbor of Myra in Turkey. Legend has it that St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, was credited with many miracles. It began when he helped save some poor girls from being sold into slavery for lack of dowry money by dropping gold into their windows.

As Christianity spread, so did the story of St. Nicholas. In Russia he was made a patron saint in the ninth century. He kept his bearded image.

There was even a Mongolian version of Santa in the 13th century. At the end of the year they celebrated and exchanged gifts. These days, the Chinese god Tsai Sen Yeh visits the children at the end of the year. And, like Santa, carries a sack filled with toys on his back. While the white beard remains, he is dressed in elegant robes.

By the 14th century, Santa was depicted with a long white beard and riding across the sky on a horse. However he kept his religious image, dressed in robes of a priest.

In Holland, Santa was originally known as “Christkindle,” the German word for “Christ child.” Over the centuries it was translated into “Kris Kringle.”

It wasn’t until the late 1840s, in England, that Santa developed the look closer to our present image. He was known as “Father Christmas.”

Another influence on his appearance was the publishing of A Visit from St. Nicholas in 1848 by Clement Moore. In the illustrations, he was pictured with his reindeer, who had names. Thomas Nast, a cartoonist for the American magazine Harper’s Weekly was the first to show Santa a plump and happy, carrying a bag of toys on his back.

Santa even played a role in politics in the 1860s when a drawing of him appeared, dressed in stars and stripes, giving gifts to Union soldiers.

Toy collectors are willing to spend big money, into the thousands of dollars, for antique Santa image toys. The  wide diversity includes jack-in-the-box, Santa acrobat on a stick, pull-toys and mechanical Santas.

In 1875, one of the most popular Santa toys was patented by Arthur Hotchkiss – the walking Santa. The rights were sold to Ives and, in 1893, it was offered in their catalog for $2.75. These days, if you could find one, the price could be $6,000 to $7,000. Another version was made of lithographed tin in the 1930s by Julius Chien. It could sell for around $300. In the 1960s, a wind-up Santa walker of tin and celluloid was made in Japan. With the popularity of Japanese-made toys, today it could wear a price tag of $200 or more.

Collectors of mechanical banks can find a bank that has Santa drop his arm as coins go down the chimney. It is a pricey $1,000 or more.

By the end of the 19th century, Santa images were sold in many forms. One of the best known Santa games was made in 1899 by McLoughlin Bros. If you could find Visit of Santa Claus, the price could be $2,000 or more.

Still reasonably priced are the Santa decorations from Christmas tree ornaments and lights to the paper decorations that often held candy. There are dozens of different figural Santa ornaments for the ornament collector, including blown glass, spun cotton and crepe paper as well as expensive Dresden ornaments made of embossed cardboard. Most are only 2 or 3 inches high and are embossed in metallic silver or gold. They were produced in the Dresden-Leipzig area of Germany beginning around 1880 until World War I. Because of their fragility, they are rarities and expensive. Santa in a sleigh could cost more than $700.

Equally fragile were the paper cornucopias that hung on the tree and held candy. Santa was a favorite subject. Most of these were made at home.
Just coming into their own are early Christmas tree lights, as a collectible category. There are many variations of Santa lights and prices range from $20 to $300.

Collectors include decorations, especially when they can find German “belsnickles” of plaster or paper mache. These Santas are usually dressed in garments of gold or silver. Prices can be from $300 to more than $700, depending on the size.

For Disney collectors, there is a Santa handcar with Mickey Mouse in his pack. Made of pressed steel in 1937 by Lionel, today it could sell for more than $2,000.

Santa has been used in advertising for decades. One of the most famous Santa ads was for Coca-Cola. It was illustrated by Haddon Sundblom. Years later, the original artwork was purchased at auction for $3,250 by Mort Walker, known for his cartoon strip “Beetle Bailey.”

Stores found Santa’s image a good sales tool. Since they were usually trashed after Christmas, collectors of advertising memorabilia are willing to spend hundreds of dollars to add them to collections.

The collectibles listed here are only a few possibilities for Santa collectors. Who knows what is waiting to be discovered in a basement, attic or garage sale?

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More Images:

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Antique Santa lantern with mica trim. Near mint condition. Credit: Garth's Auctions.
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Tin Roly Poly Santa. Made by Schoenhut in the 1930s, just before they went out of business. Credit: James Julia Inc.
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Advertising Santa stickpin for Kresge department store. 1 1/2 inches, 1930s. Credit: Hake's Auctions
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Folk art Santa of carved wood. Early 20th century. Credit: Garth's Auctions
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Santa in Sleigh with Reindeer. 8 ". Stamped "Germany". Composition Santa dress in red/white felt with fur beard, paper tree. Mica covered carton sleigh. Composition reindeer with glass eyes, metal antlers. Credit: James Julia Inc.
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Celluloid Santa Clause. 10" high. Stamped on carton base "Japan". Celluloid face, papier mache limbs. Stuffed torso, cotton clothing, wool beard. Credit: Garth's Auctions.

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