Museum Curator's Private Collection on Display in "The Art of Christmas"

Dec 20, 2011

An exhibit by Val Berryman, called “The Art of Christmas," is on display at the Williamston Depot Museum.  Berryman is curator of history at the Michigan State University Museum.  He’s been collecting vintage Christmas decorations, figurines and illustrations since 1984.  Berryman tells WKAR’s Gretchen Millich that for this exhibit, he chose some favorites from his personal collection.

VAL BERRYMAN:  I started collecting Santas originally, just to see how many different images there were, and then that branched out into Christmas customs in other lands, so it’s a fairly broad collection now.
What I selected for this exhibition was hand-made, hand-painted, hand-drawn artwork.  Probably the most recognizable image here is a wood engraving of Santa Claus that was done by the famous cartoonist Thomas Nast.  He worked for Harper’s Weekly, and every Christmas season, from the 1860’s into the 1880’s, he did one or more new images for Christmas.  The one that we have here is a double page spread engraving of a side view of Santa Claus, loaded down with gifts, on his back and in his arms, and he’s smoking a long Dutch clay pipe.  I think people would recognize it if they saw it, because it’s an image that has continued to be used over the years in all sorts of forms.

GRETCHEN MILLICH:  You have so many interesting illustrations here.  This particular one is a Disney print that shows Santa Claus bringing a gift to Mickey and Minnie.

BERRYMAN:  This is based on a cartoon that came out around 1935 on The Night Before Christmas.  It has a pretty distinctive Disneyesque Santa Claus, with big bulging eyes and protruding nose.  He’s just a jolly looking character.  This particular one I actually bought in London.  It’s a very bright and colorful Disney illustration.

MILLICH:  Where do you find all this Christmas memorabilia?  You bought this in London.  Do you travel the world looking for this kind of thing?

BERRYMAN:  I’ve found an awful lot of it right here in Michigan.  Michigan has been a great place to hunt for antiques. But now that eBay has come along, that’s probably a major source now for me.  I have traveled to England, to Germany, to France, but I don’t actually find an awful lot over there, because you really have to take your time and dig for it, and I’ve never been there long enough to do that.  But I belong to a Christmas collector’s club, and we have a convention every summer.   Dealers come there, and they bring things that they’ve saved throughout the year to sell at the convention, and some really amazing things come up there.

MILLICH:  This is really very interesting.  You have displayed a Christmas card that you made when you were nine years old, living in Farmington, Michigan, and it shows Santa Claus coming down the chimney.  You were interested in Santa Claus way back then?

BERRYMAN:  I vaguely remember this as a class project that we were supposed to do in art class in grade school. It was something we were making to give to Mom and Dad.  The card just kind of showed up several years back.  I don’t even remember how I got it or where I found it.  I was kind of surprised to even see it again and added it to my collection.

MILLICH:  Like a true curator.  You know, you are known as the “Santa Man” around town because you have this incredible Santa collection.  What is it about Santa Claus that really fascinates you, aside from the fact that he brings us presents on Christmas?

BERRYMAN:  I think it was the art of Santa that attracted me initially.  It was just an amazing array of images of Santa Claus.  It’s astounding, all the different ways that he is depicted by individual artists. They continue to come up with unique ways of showing him and unique variations in costuming and so forth. And yet there’s no question that each of these is Santa Claus, whether he’s in a blue robe or a brown robe, whether he’s carrying a bishop’s staff as St. Nicholas does, or a Christmas tree over his shoulder, it’s a character that’s almost immediately recognizable.  Of course, I’m always looking for the more unusual figures or other Christmas characters.  Other countries have their own individual characters, male and female.  So those are fun to hunt down and learn more about and then do exhibits on them.