HARMONY, R.I. — Anyone who thinks that if you've seen one Santa Claus, you've seen them all has never trekked down to Kenneth W. Blanchard's basement.
From floor to ceiling, shelves are lined with row upon row of right jolly old elves who have cheeks like roses and noses like cherries.
There are music boxes, pins, mugs, salt-and-pepper sets, figurines, tin wind-up toys, banks, wooden incense burners, pocket knives, spoons, rings and tie tacks. Overhead, cardboard cut-outs and posters cover the ceiling with more Santas.
Blanchard has more than 7,000 Santas on display or stashed in a nearby storage area. No two are alike, which would make this one of the world's largest amalgamations of Santa Clauses (if records were kept of such things).
'Every Face Is Different'
Santa is "the most fascinating subject in the world," Blanchard says, and in the Santa collection, "every face is different. I can tell almost immediately whether I've fond a new one or not, just from looking at the face."
One palm-size Santa was made from a starfish; another is a hand-painted beach stone. The largest is a 5-foot motorized waving Santa, probably more than 50 years old, who used to greet visitors in the Citizens Bank lobby in downtown Providence. The smallest Santa, made from plastic, is one-quarter-inch high.
The oldest, dating to the 1840s, is a glass candy container. There are Santa figures from the 1920s made of wispy thin celluloid. On one shelf sits a Santa doll holding a small bottle of Coca-Cola, an artifact of the soft drink's famous Santa ad campaign.
Across the room, a balding Santa with his furry cap off is kneeling at the manger of the Christ child. In another spot, a dozing Santa sits next to one who laughs and blinks his eyes.
Even a Chinese Santa
Look long enough, and you'll see a thimble-sized Santa made of translucent, pale green glass, and an 1842 fabric print of a Cossack-hatted Santa wearing a thick, dark fur coat. There are black Santas and even a Chinese Santa figurine.
Blanchard, 52, has been saving Santas for about 30 years. Once he started, the collection snowballed with contributions from friends, relatives and people who heard or read of his holiday horde.
When he was growing up in nearby Scituate, his mother always fussed over Christmas. The collection started with a present from her--a Santa ornament that hung on the family tree when Blanchard was a child.
Blanchard first got the idea when he was driving a local school bus. "The kids used to put little Santas on top of the presents they gave me," he said. "I kept them.
"Then my wife and our friends started buying stuff at auctions and flea markets. And as word of the collection grew, people started sending me Santa items from all over the world. Many of them are handmade. I've got them from everywhere."
The collection has nearly doubled since Yankee magazine profiled Blanchard in a 1979 holiday issue.
More Santas in Mail
The mail brought letters of encouragement and packages containing still more Santas. Envelopes addressed to "The Santa Man of Harmony" or "Mr. Santa Claus" managed to find their way to his mailbox.
"Last summer, a woman and her husband drove up and rang the doorbell," Blanchard recalled. "They asked, 'Is this where the Santa Man lives?' They wanted to see the collection. Before they left, they brought in two more boxes of stuff for me.
"Some of the old people thought a lot of their decorations. They sent them to me because they wanted nothing to happen to them."
Blanchard has run out of room for his collection. Many of his Santas are packed away in cartons. A series of serious illnesses--including two heart attacks--have left him unable to work, dashing his dream of opening a Santa Claus museum. Occasionally, he thinks of selling his lode.
Then comes another knock on the door.
"People see things I have and remember hanging the same things on a tree when they were kids. They'll spot something and say, 'I remember one like that. It was my grandfather's' or 'Boy, I wish I had never thrown this away, or that away.' "
Amid all of the Santa paraphernalia on one wall is a linen towel. The red and green lettering reads: "All hearts go home at Christmas time."
"Here," Blanchard says, "it's Christmas all year long."