Sharing Treasures of Christmases Past

Odd Collections, People, Seasonal, Traditions
on December 2, 2001

In a holiday season too often grown artificial, Val Berryman of Williamston, Mich., (pop. 3,441) has found a way to share cherished souvenirs and stories of Christmases past.

Berryman, 61, has spent nearly 30 years amassing more than 3,000 pieces of Christmas history and tradition—Santa statuettes and Father Christmas figurines, cookie tins, and candy dispensers—from around the world, which he annually displays for the pleasure of others.

He scours antique shows and conventions; travels to places such as England, Germany, and France; and recently dove headlong into the online auction site eBay, searching for Christmas mementos.

“Any collector knows this need, this longing to find that next treasure,” Berryman says. “In the end, there’s nothing better than putting together a display and illustrating it with the things I’ve found. I’m able to show people a bit of their past.”

With his white beard and easy smile, Berryman could pass for a slimmed-down, fat-free-cookies-and-skim-milk Santa.

“As you can see, I use my home for storage,” says Berryman, ducking under a hanging Father Christmas sculpture (hand-casted metal from 1950s Germany) and stepping between a pair of large, 1940s papier-mâché Santa heads setting on his living room floor.

Santa knickknacks and trinkets are seemingly puzzle-fitted into nearly every nook and cranny of the ground floor of Berryman’s two-story farmhouse in south-central Michigan.

“People ask what my house is like during Christmas, but I don’t even put up a tree,” he says. “I don’t even decorate. I spend the holidays down in Florida with my sister and my niece and my folks.”

That, according to fellow collector Sharon Irrer, defines Berryman. “He spends all his free time setting up his displays for everyone else to enjoy,” she says. “Val spends a lot of time learning the history of each item and tries to teach people as well.”

Berryman, for example, can tell the story of Sinterklaas, the Dutch Santa who arrives by ship every Dec. 6 with his big book listing the names of well-behaved boys and girls. Or, he can explain the origins of Russia’s Grandfather Frost, whose symbolism shifted from the celebration of Christianity to the celebration of the New Year after the Communist revolution of 1917.

He also likes to remind people that today’s roly-poly, rosy-cheeked Santa image was created in the 1930s for the Coca-Cola company by artist Haddon Sundblom and popularized the world over by Coke’s magazine ads and billboard barrage.

“Most younger people don’t realize that today’s Santa is not the same one their grandparents knew,” Berryman says. “That’s what I like to track down—those Santa images from some other time and place.”

Collecting, for Berryman, is more than just a hobby. It’s also his job. As curator of history for the Michigan State University Museum for 35 years, Berryman oversees, archives, and exhibits the museum’s wide-ranging, 100,000-piece collection.

“Nearly every day, I get to be involved with all of these wonderful museum pieces,” he says, “without having to own them.”

MSU Museum items often augment Berryman’s Christmas display. An early 1900s Santa’s workshop was the centerpiece of one of his recent exhibits. In it, Christmas-costumed mannequins and elves hammered and sawed and hand-drilled with implements from MSU’s antique tool collection. This year, a display in a Michigan Veterans Home will focus on “Santa and the Military” and feature items from the Civil War through the Korean War.

Throughout the year, Berryman gives presentations to various social groups, including collector’s clubs and history organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution.

“Certainly the best part of my collection is sharing it,” he says. “There’s nothing better than when someone tells me how the collection touched them. There’s nothing better than being able to share something you enjoy with other people.”