No holiday figure is as instantly recognizable as Kris Kringle, better known as Santa Claus, the jovial, red-suited icon who has inspired a galaxy of Christmas decorations.
Among the most delightful Santa ornaments are playful miniatures made of celluloid, an early, inexpensive plastic, sold at five-and-dimes from before World War I through the 1930s.
For less than a dollar, you could buy a handful of little Santas, perhaps on skis or in a train. Now they are treasured reminders of Christmases past.
Celluloid was originally developed as a cheap substitute for ivory. John Wesley Hyatt, an American printer, invented it in 1869 by mixing nitrocellulose and camphor to create a hard, sleek, lightweight material that was used to manufacture billiard balls, vanity sets, utensil handles, and decorative boxes. But the new substance had its drawbacks: It faded, scratched easily, and was highly flammable.
By the 1920s, celluloid was being hailed as a modern, innovative material, not just ersatz ivory or tortoiseshell. It became a worldwide, mass-market phenomenon, with factories in the United States, Germany, and Japan turning out colorful celluloid toys and holiday novelties that everyone could afford.
Lilliputian Santa Clauses, 2 to 6 inches high, dangled from trees, peeked out of stockings, decorated mantels, and even served as rattles for fidgety babies. Children were captivated by Santa roly-polys that wobbled from side to side but remained upright due to a small weight in their base. They also liked candy-holder Santas with a bag roomy enough to fit a single, cellophane-wrapped candy.
Celluloid Santas made before World War II are fancifully detailed, with a quirky charm lacking in later, generic figures that were spray-painted red and white. In the 1920s and before, plastic Santa Clauses had a variety of looks, ranging from straight, slim, and stern-looking to round, wide-eyed, and red-lipped. The genial, larger-than-life Santa Claus we know today was popularized in 1931 through billboards and advertisements for Coca-Cola by artist Haddon Sundblom, who depicted Santa as a rotund, ruddy-cheeked, grandfatherly man who was more human than elf.
The influential campaign, which ran until 1964, prompted plastics companies to standardize and modernize their Santa novelties. By the 1940s, Santa skied, drove cars, and piloted trains, planes, dirigibles, and even rockets.
These plastic, dime-store charmers can be found at antiques shops, flea markets, and online auctions (usually during the holiday season). Unfortunately, the passage of time has not been kind to these fragile figurines, which are often chipped, discolored, and misshapen by sunlight and attic heat. If you don't care about a dented seam in Santa's suit or some cracks on his beard, you may find a little tree ornament for $10 to $35 (in pristine condition, for as much as $250). Be prepared to pay hundreds of dollars for a rare 1920s roly-poly in excellent condition.
Celluloid is as delicate as an eggshell and will smash to smithereens if dropped, so be careful handling it. To clean celluloid, use mild dish detergent and a damp cloth or a cotton-tipped swab (never soak Santas in water as the paint may dissolve). After the holidays, wrap them in acid-free tissue and store in a dry, cool place so that next Christmas they can once again fill your home with cheer and merriment.
-- Text by Jill Gerston