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A Museum Devoted to Christmas

Martha Stewart Living, December 2002

The National Christmas Center, in rural Pennsylvania, displays thousands of vintage holiday treasures. In the rare moment when he sits still, curator Jim Morrison could be mistaken for an exhibit.

Santa's Many Faces
Holiday Scenes
A Wealth of Details
Kugels And Choochoos

Santa Claus is among us. You'll find him in a red cotton polo shirt, looking as though he just came in from a game of tennis with Mrs. Claus. And, apparently, the North Pole is farther south than previously believed: Santa lives in Paradise, Pennsylvania, where he somehow finds the time to curate a museum, the National Christmas Center.

The museum occupies 20,000 square feet of a former banquet hall on Route 30 East in the rolling Amish countryside near Lancaster. It's chock-full of Christmas memorabilia -- ornaments in cases, evergreen on the walls, and iridescent papier-mache snowflakes twirling against the cobalt-blue ceiling. This is all the brainchild of the Santa Clausian Jim Morrison, who has amassed Christmas ephemera since he was a boy. Now he has put his collection on display so visitors can enjoy his quirky, heartfelt celebration of the holiday.

A stroll through the center reveals almost every conceivable trapping of the season. As soon as your eyes adjust to the glimmering Christmas lights, you'll pick up on dozens of themes. In the Santa Claus -- crammed hallway, the prints, dolls, and kitchen knickknacks document the history of this figure's changing physical appearance. You see his evolution from the benign Saint Nicholas of legend to Belsnickle (a dastardly imp who probably originated in northern Europe) to the stern Father Christmas of England, and finally to the jolly soul we know today.

Glass cases chronicle the equally varied history of tree trimming. Morrison's collection includes kugels (glass balls), 100-year-old springerle cookies (painted with food coloring), and homemade paper decorations. Also here are the tools used to make them all -- patinated springerle molds, glassblowing tubes, shape stampers, and Victorian paper cutouts, which would be nested in cotton batting or trimmed with tinsel and crepe paper and hung on the tree. Among these old ornaments, you glimpse at what Christmas looked like years ago and learn the origins of many items -- from tinsel to lights -- used to trim trees today.

Morrison found his first piece when he was 6 years old. "I would pick over the Christmas trees that the neighbors threw away for some leftover tinsel or a forgotten ball," he says.Today, his first trash-rescued treasure -- a little glass ornament -- hangs on an otherworldly "cotton tree," a dried sassafras wrapped in white cotton that stands outside the entrance to the center.

His love of Christmas and all its accoutrements grew as he aged -- Morrison's college yearbook photo shows the young man engulfed by a Santa Claus hat and sporting a full beard -- and by 1999 he had amassed so much that he saw no choice but to open a museum. His mission, he says, is to "take adults back to their childhood and show the splendor of Christmas past to children." Morrison favors commonplace things: a vintage candy tin or toy train, a mechanical figure or tableware from the five-and-dime.

Wandering among his displays can be overwhelming because of the volume of the collectibles -- and of the carols piped through the speakers in each room. But once something draws your attention, you'll be engrossed.

"What's unusual is the thoroughness with which Jim has approached the topic," says Fritz Karch, Martha Stewart Living collecting editorial director. "The collection is engaging on many levels." The museum can surprise and delight a connoisseur, but it is just as much fun for other visitors, as some aspect of every generation's Christmas is lovingly represented. "You can see how holiday celebrations evolved in America," Fritz says. "This place is really about the anthropology of Christmas." The result is a sweet and funny hodgepodge that is, by its inclusiveness of many cultural traditions, decidedly American. That's because as much as Morrison loves Christmas collectibles, he loves the spirit of the holiday even more -- and his museum allows him to live it every day.

The National Christmas Center is at 3427 Lincoln Highway, Paradise, Penn. For more information, call 717-442-7950.