Santa, Santa, everywhere: Local man’s collection numbers 500

Every year, as Thanksgiving Day draws to a close, Michael Roediger heads for the storage closets in his Kettering home and begins to unpack ten giant tubs filled with his special treasures.

By the time he’s done unwrapping and arranging them, more than 500 Santas have taken up residence in every room in his house.

Wearing traditional red suits with black boots, belts and big bellies, one group of Santa figurines welcomes visitors to the foyer. Hundreds band together in curio cabinets and on living room shelves. They stand on the fireplace hearth, perch on kitchen counters, and congregate in the kitschy 1960′s rec room downstairs. It is Santaland on steroids.

“Santa represents love, kindness and a good heart,” says Roediger, who is also director and president of the Dayton Art Institute.

When it comes to his beloved collection, however, it’s not about expensive museum art.

“I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than $15 for a Santa,” Roediger shares. “I’m into thrifting and the thrill of the hunt so I buy them at Goodwill, at Saint Francis and other thrift shops. I don’t like to buy new ones; I like older ones that have had a life and were probably loved by some kid.”

He especially likes hand painted Santa Clauses from the 1950s, 60s and 70s that appear to have been made from a mold in a ceramics class. He likes them, he says, because they’re so personal, often signed and dated.

“Sometimes I find them with a note like: ‘Merry Christmas, Johnny, Love Grandma,’” says Roediger. “Who gets rid of a Santa with a note from Grandma?”

Lots of variety

The Santas are made from a wide range of materials: porcelain, wood, fabric, even seashells. One was created from a bowling pin.

They represent all kinds of characters, activities, professions. There’s a Santa bank and there are Santa place cards for a holiday meal. One Santa rides a unicycle, and one a Harley. Lots of them are music boxes that play carols and Christmas music. One of the animated Santas drives his sled to the tune of “Oh Christmas Tree.”

Patriotic Santa is dressed in red, white and blue. Cowboy Santa is the size of a toddler. One Santa holds a huge stack of Christmas letters, another is a Humpty Dumpty Santa painted on a real egg. Dr. Santa is taking care of an elf and handing out COVID masks. Upside down Santa, stuck in a chimney, cries out for help, All we can see is the bottom of his boots!

In Roediger’s kitchen are salt-and-pepper Santas, a Santa cookie jar and a Santa who counts down the days until Christmas. There are Boston Terriers dressed up like Santa in honor of Roediger’s own dog, Chace. There are Santa planters and Santa candy jars.

Turns out Santa is pretty musical. You’ll see him playing drums, guitar, accordion, bass, tuba, harp and pipe organ.

Mrs. Clause gets into the act as well. She spins on the ice with her famous husband and in another setting, the two dance merrily.

Roediger’s oldest Santa dates from the late 1800s. “It’s a little alcohol bottle people used to buy and give as gifts,” he explains. “My Christmas tree light bulb Santas are from the 1920s and 30s.”

There are a series of Santas from famous China companies like Royal Doulton and Lenox.

Roediger’s first Black Santa was given to him by a friend after she’d seen all the white Santas in his collection. “They are harder to find and I’ve collected many more,” he says. “What’s important is that children can identify with Santa; they know he is magical and comes in all shapes and colors.”

And though most of the Santas are nice, there are some naughty ones as well.

Research proves fascinating

Roediger has learned a lot about his idol over the years. He’s learned that Santa’s roots can be traced back to Saint Nicholas, a 4th-century Christian saint. Some of those figurines wear the traditional clerical garb.

He’s learned that in foreign lands Santa takes on other forms. In some countries, Santa is represented in the form of a woman. In Italy, she’s a witch, La Befana, who rides a broom and delivers magical gifts on Christmas. The White Fairy is observed in France and Switzerland. Santa Lucia brings Christmas treats in Scandinavia.

Occasionally, Roediger comes upon a valuable Santa that might qualify for “Antiques Roadshow.” “I got so excited when I bought a Harold Gale Santa at Goodwill for $9.99,” Roediger says. “They look like dolls, are handmade, wear velvet suits and have paper mache faces and lamb’s wool hair. Harold Gale worked as a window dresser at a department store. They generally sell for $75-$600.”

Love for the holiday

You might think someone who goes so all out for Christmas was deprived of the holiday as a child. Quite the contrary. “When I was a kid, Christmas was very big for my mother and her father,” he recalls. “It was festive — there were parties, gifts, decorations. My mom’s dad died on Christmas day and I think my mom wanted to make it bigger and invite lots of people because she didn’t want to think about her dad dying on that day. My dad called his wife ‘Johanna, the Christmas Fairy.’”

Roediger pulls out a treasured Santa that once hung in his childhood hallway. It’s a Santa head with a string attached to the bottom. Pull the string and it plays “Jingle Bells.”

“I pulled that string so many times as a child that I broke the gold ball on it,” Roediger recalls.

Always a collector at heart, as a child growing up in Trotwood Roediger accumulated Corgi and Dinky cars. “It’s about finding a hobby that brings you joy,” he explains. “I can remember my mom and I going to Rike’s at the Salem Mall or Children’s Palace and trying to finish a series of cars. My dad was an architect and lined my walls with shelves to display them all.”

The Santa collection began with one ceramic figure. “My Dad would take me to go shopping at Rike’s downtown for my mom’s Christmas present,” he remembers. “I would visit Santa and when I was about 10 I laughed at a funny-looking Kilroy Santa, a symbol from World War II. My dad bought it for me at Rikes. It still has its $3.50 price tag on the bottom.”

“When I pass, if the Santas are still with me, my son will keep some of my favorite ones,” Roediger says. “I’d want people at my memorial service to take one of my Santas home with them.

“I want my collection to provide a moment of joy, a laugh, and maybe help people remember a special Christmas in their lives.”

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