Christmas might come but once a year, but the expectation for its arrival is a yearlong passion for many. Larchmont, New York, collector Bill Steely is a solid member of these Yuletide yearners. In fact, the 53-year-old retired ad executive is the publicity director for the Golden Glow organization and the co-administrator of the holiday proponents’ Facebook page. As a member of its board of directors, who always has a keen eye toward recruitment, Steely is living his lifelong dream — a Christmas dream replete with candy containers, feather trees, Santa figures, and ornaments galore. As a young boy, Bill grew up with a love of the decorations and pageantry that defined the Noel season. Today, he is the grown-up equivalent of having his childhood wishes come true.
In his blue-collar family home, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Bill’s parents were firmly working-class, and money was often tight. However, the purse strings were loosened when it came to spreading happiness and enjoyment among the family: “We didn’t have much money, and our vacation was a couple nights at the Jersey Shore. We could always count on that, and getting everything we wanted at Christmas. My parents would go into debt in December, and spend the next eight months catching up. We always had an abundance at Christmas.”
Bill collected coins as a child, and his mother had a penchant for Hummel figurines. His cousin, Debby, was an antiques dealer, and it was through her specialty in holiday collectibles that the adolescent saw what was available to be bought and bartered: “Christmas had the most to offer in the way of antiques, with Halloween right behind. So many great things were made for both holidays. But Christmas is what really stirred an interest in me. She gave me some early ornaments, and from there I just needed to find out as much as I could. The more I learned, the more interested I became. It fed on itself.”
As the decades fluttered by, Steely’s interest in antiques continued to expand. Nearly a dozen years ago, while at an antiques fair in upstate New York, Steely was lingering at a booth that had a vast array of Japanese ornaments — chenille, celluloid, and glass. His time spent studying the merchandise and inspecting its condition led the dealer to talk to him about a club called the Golden Glow, an association made up of collectors of pre-1966 Christmas paraphernalia.
After joining the organization, Steely attended its convention, which was held in Cincinnati, and brought his 6-year-old daughter, Chloe, with him. “I had asked both my daughters if they wanted to attend, and it was Chloe who said yes.”
That affirmation began an annual tradition of father and daughter traveling to attend the large yearly gatherings, and his little girl — now 17 — has become a full-fledged Christmas aficionado as well.
“Chloe has a pretty impressive Krampus collection, which also includes quite a few figures that are also candy containers. ‘Krampus’ is an alter ego of the gift giver, in this case St. Nicholas, which is a legend in Southern Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. St. Nicholas rewarded the good children for good deeds with treats, and Krampus punished the bad children, often putting them in his sack and carrying them to a place from which they wouldn’t return! No wonder we have the artist Haddon Sundblom’s version of Santa (the iconic Coca-Cola Santa), and American bad kids get coal instead of chains and switches!” bemuses Steely.
Much of Steely’s personal collection is comprised of Victorian-era toys, displays, ornaments, and die-cut creations. “I have clockwork ‘nodders’ in my collection that were used as trade stimulators. They would be placed in shop windows — bakeries, dry goods, apothecaries — and attract customers. It was a precursor to the department store window displays,” he explains. “The nodders can be very complex, with several moving parts. There are Santa toys and games, blocks and puzzles, banks and toys. Once you start collecting Christmas, you can dig deep into a lot of areas. I don’t know how many things I own, but I do know it is too much to put out every year.”
Many of Steely’s collectibles concentrate on the popular-culture components of the holiday. Rather than focusing on the religious or divine aspects of the season, the preponderance of his possessions shine a light on the fun and festive side of the celebrations. “Christmas is an interesting combination of secular and religiosity. It’s believed that the early Church adopted some of the pagan rituals from the holiday of Saturnalia, which was a celebration of the winter solstice that involved role reversing, great feasts, drinking, and gift giving,” the collector observes. “As early as the passion plays put on by Churches in squares from the time of the 14th century, Christmas has always taught us a morality tale: Be good and get rewarded. Be bad and get punished. Santa has evolved as the ultimate do-gooder. St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, dropped gold into the stockings of maidens who hung them by the fire to dry so they would have a dowry and could marry. Hence, the hanging of stockings at Christmas, to this day.”
As Steely accrues more items, he also acquires additional insight into how his favorite time of year is honored and feted around the world. The collection of ornamental objects also translates into the pursuit of knowledge and honing of his own astute observations.
“Clement Clarke Moore, who is attributed as the author of ‘The Night Before Christmas,’ described in words what would become our modern-day image of Santa. And based on that work, Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist who worked in the mid-19th century, drew our modern-day Santa. But this was all happening in America. In Germany, however, Santa was emerging as a stern figure known as Pelz Nichol, or ‘Nicholas in fur.’ He started out as a disciplinarian, who only later morphed into a more kindly character. Germany also had Knecht Ruprecht, another doppelganger of St. Nicholas. He would ask children if they could pray. If they could, he would reward them with nuts and fruit. If not, he would beat them with his sack of ashes. So it’s no wonder that the Santa figures being made in Germany from 1880 through 1910, in the late Victorian period, were often stern,” Steely opines.
Since the Christmas craze isn’t confined to simply the 25th of December in the Steely household, Bill jokes that his wife “tolerates” his collection and “refers to it as a sickness. In truth, she’s very supportive and has endured all the conventions, auctions, attention, and so on that the collecting presents to a family. We love to entertain throughout the year, and open our house at Christmas to friends and neighbors in our community. The objects are beautiful and whimsical, and we enjoy sharing something of their history.”
It takes two to three weeks for Steely to get his house set up for Christmas — “depending on how fast I move” — but there are some items that remain on display in his home year-round. “There are some great jack-in-the-boxes, some of the smaller Santa candy containers, and a couple of pull toys that stay in the dining room. I keep a large Santa candy container and a Santa nodder on the mantel in the same room, flanking some pictures of chickens. It makes me happy to look at them, and it somehow works with the décor,” he says.
Though the enthusiast can clearly say that December 25 is his preferred time of the year, he can’t narrow down which of his collectibles is his favorite.
“They are all so great, unique, and have special appeal for different reasons,” states Steely. “I love the old cotton ornaments for their whimsical nature, especially the animals. I have an elephant dressed as a maid, a pig in a party outfit, and a fox dressed as a hunter. The detail on these early ornaments is amazing. I also love the Dresden ornaments for their artistry. They age with the greatest patina. Aside from the ornaments, the Santas are beautiful. I prefer the ‘Father Christmas’ ones, with kindly faces. Of course, anything that is very rare has great appeal. I have a ‘patriotic tree’ that I put out most years. It has nothing but patriotic ornaments on it. Most trees at the turn of the century had at least one patriotic ornament, made especially for the U.S. market. I display these ornaments on a feather tree that is dyed blue, which is also very rare. And the Krampus collection has a special place in my heart because it has all been collected with my daughter.”
Despite the scary, frightening visages of the Krampus creatures, these devilish imps symbolize for Bill Steely what is best and brightest about the Christmas season: They embody the bond between him and his youngest child. And family togetherness, combined with special traditions and shared memories, is what Christmas is all about.
To learn more about Christmas collecting and connect with like-minded folk, visit www.goldenglow.org.