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They go crazy over Christmas collections

“Where’s Mrs. Snuffleberry” is a diorama displayed last year at the Museum of Wonder and Delight in Folsom.
“Where’s Mrs. Snuffleberry” is a diorama displayed last year at the Museum of Wonder and Delight in Folsom. rbenton@sacbee.com

Some people just can’t get enough “Ho, ho, ho.”

Count Jim Morrison among them. One of the nation’s foremost authorities on all things merry and bright, he’s the curator and resident historian of the National Christmas Center in Paradise, Pa.

Rather, let Morrison do the counting. The 20,000-square-foot museum overflows with Christmas cheer.

“Where to begin?” he said with a chuckle. “In our gallery right now, we have 500 portraits of Santa. We have 300 nativities on display. There are more than 200 elves, and teddy bears to match. We have 200 train sets; you’ve got to have trains for Christmas. There are thousands of toys and Christmas decorations in our 1950s Woolworths display. Our library has 10,000 Christmas postcards and 3,000 to 4,000 greeting cards on display. We have thousands and thousands of ornaments.”

Himself a collector, Morrison is among those that got hooked on the holiday and just kept adding. His personal collection gave the Christmas Center its start in 1998. He understands.

“I talk to thousands of visitors,” Morrison said. “I catch people in tears, particularly in the Woolworths store. They’re just blown away. It takes them back to their childhood.”

And therein lies the true draw of Christmas collecting. Be it hundreds of Santas or one precious tree topper, these mementos come with strong emotional ties.

“Memories,” Morrison said. “They’re tapping into their memories, usually from childhood. Or they may be memories of people no longer there, such as a grandmother or parents. And then, they start collecting because (these items) bring back those memories.”

Much of the center’s Christmas cache is displayed year-round in a tiny town (population 1,129) in Pennsylvania’s Amish country.

“We’ve been on the Travel Channel for 10 years,” Morrison said. “Out of the six most Christmas-y places in America, we were ranked No. 2.” (No. 1 was the Branson, Mo., Christmas Festival of Lights.)

Martha Stewart is among the celebrities and TV hosts that have beaten a path to Morrison’s door. About 40,000 visitors annually come by to ogle at the toy-laden displays – and maybe take something home.

“People come into our gift shop to buy a Santa,” he added. “Then, the husband says, ‘we already have 300.’ It can become a compulsive behavior disorder.”

Dolph Gotelli, Sacramento’s Father Christmas, understands the Christmas bug, too. He’s been collecting vintage and Victorian Christmas items and toys for decades. Featuring these prized finds, Gotelli’s elaborate vignettes are on permanent display in Folsom’s Museum of Wonder and Delight in its Christmas Dreams gallery.

Gotelli traces his love of collecting Christmas items back to his childhood. “I was an only child and everything about Christmas was magical and filled with fantasy,” he said.

“I’m convinced now it’s an addiction,” Gotelli said of collecting. “This is an escape.”

Gotelli is among 1,700-plus members of Golden Glow of Christmas Past, the nation’s largest Christmas collecting club.

“Without this organization, I never would have made friends in every state,” Gotelli said. “There are several different levels of collectors. It’s mostly people in their 50s or older. Victorian items aren’t that popular, in part because there isn’t that much available. Younger collectors look for things from their childhoods. Right now, vinyl elves, little plastic Santas and 1950s Styrofoam; that’s what people are attracted to.”

For avid collectors such as Gotelli, the joy comes in the search.

“I enjoy it more now than ever,” he said. “It’s the hunt, not the final thing in your possession, but finding it and getting it.”

So many people collect Christmas items because it’s an affordable and enjoyable hobby, especially for beginners, said Bill Steely of Golden Glow. Many holiday decorations are inexpensive and widely available. It’s not the monetary value but the memories that can make these trinkets seem priceless.

“Collecting is very individual in nature,” Steely said. “Santas are the most popular in terms of production. But from angels to sheep to Victorian toys for under the tree to snowmen, somebody collects them.”

Steely organized the 2016 Golden Glow summer convention and marketplace, which drew 620 collectors to Rye, N.Y.

“It was a full week of Christmas immersion,” Steely said. “More than a hundred people brought parts of their own collections for display. It was the largest collection of Christmas anywhere in the world.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

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