For her first Christmas, 6-month-old Mary Elizabeth Youens Hopkins’ parents gave her a papier-mâché Santa Claus. It was the first item in what would become a collection devoted to the jolly, white-bearded toy maker from the North Pole. Over the years, Hopkins added Santas brought back from her travels, received as gifts from friends, and made through her needlepoint hobby.
By the time she died in 1990, Hopkins had collected 2,500 items, which today are part of the huge collection on display at the Santa Claus Museum in downtown Columbus, located 73 miles west of Houston. The diversity of the collectibles ranges from Santa dolls and statues to needlepoint artworks, origami, and a complete set of illustrator Haddon Sundblom’s Santa advertisements commissioned by Coca-Cola.
The museum originated when Hopkins’ husband, James, donated his wife’s collection to a local preservationist group with the hope it could be put on display. The idea became a reality with the donation of a building from Laura Ann Rau, a founding member of the local Historical Preservation Trust, and has only continued to grow as members of the trust and the Columbus Chamber of Commerce volunteer to keep the project going and as more families donate Santas. Today, the museum draws about 1,000 visitors a year. “People of all ages. It seems everybody loves Santa,” says trust treasurer Charlotte Tilotta.
In 2019, the collection grew so large from two family donations that the museum added another room and will likely expand more in the future. It currently houses about 4,000 items including a dancing, saxophone-playing Santa toy; a 5-foot-tall Santa statue from a closed Priesmeyer Department Store in nearby Garwood; a Santa with one red eye and one green eye; and the original papier-mâché doll that Hopkins loved as a child.
Gifted in 1913, Hopkins’ papier-mâché Santa may or may not be the oldest collectible at the museum. According to Billy Kahn, executive director of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, one of the newer collections donated in 2019 includes a Thomas Nast statue. Considered the creator of the modern-day Santa Claus, the Civil War cartoonist died in 1902. “We’re not totally certain whether it’s an original Nast or a reproduction,” Kahn says. “We believe it is original, but that is yet to be verified.”
The Santa Claus Museum is the rare tourist site that doesn’t make a hard push to sell merchandise; only Christmas ornaments featuring Santa and the town of Columbus and picture cards are for sale. The real attraction is the wide range of Santas made from materials including fine China, needlework, cast iron, wood, paper, and more.
Kahn says the collection is a national draw and a labor of love for its caretakers. “It’s something that’s unique and a real gem,” he says. “The only other one in the United States is in Santa Claus, Indiana.”
Even for visitors who’ve been to Columbus’ Santa museum in years past, there are many new items to see since 2019, and even a new addition from Tilotta herself that was added to the collection for 2021. “I happened to be at an estate sale here in Columbus,” she says, “and for sale was Santa toilet paper with Santas all over it. I said, ‘We have to have that for the museum.’”
While the Santa Claus Museum never closed down completely during the COVID pandemic, it was missing one key figure: Santa himself. Usually, Saint Nick poses for photos and takes gift requests from kids at the museum every December, but he took a break in 2020 for safety reasons. He’s back and will be a regular presence at the museum through Dec. 18. The museum is open year-round by appointment, but December is when the Santa Museum offers free entry on the first three Fridays and Saturdays of the month.
On days other than the free Fridays and Saturdays and the rest of the year, donation admission is $5, and children 5 and under are free. More information on the museum is available at its website, santamuseum.org.