Sacramento’s Father Christmas gets a year-round home

It’s nowhere near the North Pole, but Sacramento’s Father Christmas finally found a year-round home for his vast collection of whimsy. Open for its first holiday season in historic Folsom, the new Museum of Wonder and Delight offers an enchanting toyland for children of all ages – and an homage to a past era of Christmas fantasy.

Tucked into the end of a city parking garage, the new museum overlooks Folsom’s bustling winter ice skating rink. Its three galleries are the culmination of a 25-year search by UC Davis design professor emeritus Dolph Gotelli to find the right place to share his many vintage toys, mementos and keepsakes, mostly dating back to Victorian times.

But this is not so much a museum of playthings as an invitation to imagine, said Gotelli, known to many in the region as “Father Christmas” for his knowledge and interest in all things related to the holiday.

“Imagination is everything; that’s really my credo,” Gotelli said. “I want people to come in here and imagine their own stories.”

Gotelli admits he’s a Victorian at heart; born too late to experience the 19th century, but filled with that era’s same sense of fascination and belief in the impossible. For the museum, he channeled his Victorian essence into more than 40 holiday and fairytale tableaus, creative displays where things take on soulfulness all their own.

As a designer, he particularly values the imagination pumped into holiday displays from yesteryear. With stunning examples among the museum’s showcases, those elaborate displays helped create the most beloved Christmas imagery including depictions of jolly Saint Nick, his high-flying reindeer and hardworking elves.

“I’m 73, but still 12 on the inside,” Gotelli said with a grin. “That’s how I feel. I never use the ‘R’ word (as in retired); I’m much too busy.”

One example is his “Land of Nod,” a bedroom-size display of a sleeping child surrounded by toys come to life and the centerpiece of the “Christmas Dreams” gallery. “That’s a totally Victorian vision – kids dreaming of Christmas,” Gotelli said. “Characters spill out of storybooks. Everything is alive with imagination.”

For Gotelli, the museum is a reminder of what he says is the loss of that imagination, especially among today’s children, compared with Christmases past.

In his view, today’s action-packed video games and superhero-filled movies don’t stimulate growing brains like those ingenious, often handmade toys and magical stories from the past. (Don’t get him started about the current fad of “Bad Santas.”)

“Everybody needs fantasy in their lives, especially today,” he said.

The new museum opened with the help of the Folsom Historic Museum, which had featured one of Gotelli’s holiday displays in 2009. That show broke all attendance records for the Folsom museum so that when three vacant city-owned storefronts became available, Folsom officials felt Gotelli’s work could be a regular draw.

His wealth of Victoriana also fits with the neighboring buildings in historic Folsom, which were erected when many of those toys were new.

Living up to the museum’s “wonder and delight” promise, Gotelli gave his fantasies 3-D detail, pulling props aplenty from his bottomless toy chest.

“Collecting is in my blood, my bones,” Gotelli said. “I keep adding things, improving (a vignette), building on a theme. It’s a sickness, an addiction, but it beats a lot of other bad habits.”

To the surprise of some visitors, this Father Christmas bears no resemblance to modern Santa Claus. That ubiquitous white-bearded, pot-bellied icon is a relatively recent phenomena, his familiar holiday personage a marvel of marketing.

Instead, Gotelli is a throwback to that earlier and ever-cheerful Christmas spirit; he’s part “right jolly old elf.”

“That’s how Santa Claus was described in (the poem) ‘The Night Before Christmas – A Visit From St. Nicholas,’ ” Gotelli noted. “He was small; he was an elf, not a man. He rode in a miniature sleigh with tiny reindeer. It wasn’t until much later that he took on full human proportions.”

Gotelli knows that red-cheeked elf like no one else. As documented in the museum’s many displays, Santa Claus has changed radically through generations. A Victorian illustration – depicting a diminutive St. Nick in a fireside stare-down with some surprised cats – proves Gotelli’s point.

For his work, Gotelli enjoys a large worldwide following. His Christmas and fairytale vignettes have appeared at Filoli mansion, Crocker Museum, Stockton’s Haggin Museum, Macy’s and Neiman Marcus in San Francisco and New York’s American Folk Art Museum.

But some holiday seasons, his collectibles and vignettes stayed packed up in boxes, unseen and unshared.

“This is stuff I’ve had for years,” he said. “I like to get it out and make it look good.”

Finding a permanent space for his collection didn’t end the challenges. No money was available for the displays or signage, so Gotelli cobbled together cases from his university work and donations from Macy’s. Volunteers built and painted larger display structures for the opening.

The night after he installed his first display, a mouse invaded the Plexiglass case.

“I came in that morning and everything was knocked over,” Gotelli recalled. “The mouse ate the marzipan head off one character. It must have been hungry; that candy was over 100 years old. I took everything edible out of the display, but the next night, the mouse was back again. That time, it ate the head off a hedgehog. It was ironic; the display is a mouse tea party.”

Gotelli started making vignettes as an only child, growing up on a farm near Stockton. With no children to play with, he invented fantasy tableaus with puppet characters.

His love of design led to a long career as both teacher and creator. Gotelli taught visual design and presentation at UC Davis for 35 years and served as director of the university’s Design Museum, which he founded. He started collecting Christmas ephemera in his early 30s.

In his vignettes, Gotelli shows a special fondness for miniature food. (That’s thanks to his Italian roots, he said.) In another favorite theme, his central characters often are animals dressed and acting like their human counterparts.

Through the years, his vignettes have only become more elaborate. A classic example greets visitors to “Once Upon a Time,” the fairytale gallery.

In the “Mother Goose Castle,” thousands of items decorate Mother Goose’s dining room as she hosts a rollicking Christmas Eve ball. Real thimble-size Staffordshire china sits on the mantel. The table is laid with a fantasy feast of impossibly cute “food,” such as itty-bitty lobsters and sausages. The main figures are contemporary papier-mâché, inspired by Victorian illustrations and crafted from textured paper towels. The silver moon is a vintage Mardi Gras mask.

“These are groups of things that never would have come together in their own times,” he said. “I mix and match and have fun with an idea.”

On a recent weekday morning, visitors studied the elaborate displays, their faces illuminated by the lights inside.

“I saw (Gotelli’s work) years ago,” said Folsom’s Sydney Bate, who brought her longtime sorority sisters to see the museum. “But at that time, I had nobody to share it with – it was up and gone before we could get together. I really wanted to share it!”

“It’s wonderful,” said Pat Schilder of Orangevale. “It’s actually breathtaking. The memories take you back.”

“It makes you remember all those wonderful childhood things,” added Joy MacCrackin of Sacramento. “You never forget.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Museum of Wonder and Delight

Where: 905 Leidesdorff St., Folsom

Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays to Sundays. Closed Mondays and Christmas Day.

Admission: $5 adults; $4 seniors age 65 and up; $2 children age 6-17; children under 6 admitted free.

Details and directions: