At this time of year, Sue Gallion's home looks like a Macy's Christmas window display. It smells like spiced apples and pine wreaths, and on every shelf and in every corner is a Santa Claus.
Gallion doesn't know how many she owns. She started counting once and finally gave up because she kept losing track. She estimates the number at 250 antique Santas, collected in countries around the world and in many of the 50 states.
When she built a house a few years ago, she had special rooms added just to store her Santa collection.
Most of the Santa figures wear homemade clothes. Their eyes peer out of handmade faces. Many of them were made more than a century ago.
A kneeling wooden Santa wears a rope-belted robe and looks like a monk. Another is a stooped old man with a long beard to his ankles, a baldhead with no hat and a patched bag full of presents. Yet another is a white bearded man with his arms outstretched -- birds landing on his hands and shoulders. He looks like Saint Francis of Assisi.
Their carving hints at different beliefs from other eras and other cultures surrounding Christmas and Santa Claus.
Gallion still has the Santa that started it all. It's a fragile Christmas ornament made with a round camera flash bulb that she made with her daughter in the 1950s. It still has a painted face and scraggly gray beard made of cotton.
Gallion didn't get serious about collecting Santa Claus figures until the 1970s. She tries to buy a Santa in every country she visits, which is sometimes difficult. Some countries' residents don't believe in Santa, and stores don't always stock Santas out of season, but Gallion visits antique stores until she finds one.
She has Santas from China, Ireland, Sweden and Italy. She has Santas made of clay and wood and wax.
"I know where every one of them came from," she said. "Each one brings back good memories."
After collecting Santas for so many years, Gallion has gotten particular about which ones she will buy.
"I choose by their faces and their eyes," she said. "If their eyes tell you something, if they have a personal feeling, that's what it's all about."
Above it all, a banner in her living room reads, "I believe in Santa."
Santa represents the happy part of Christmas, she said. "Christmas is a very emotional time. I just wanted to share my collection with people to make them smile.
"I have always loved Christ--mas. We really need to bring more Christmas into it."
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