The Val R. Berryman Christmas Traditions Collection

The Val R. Berryman Christmas Traditions Collection consists of more than 5000 objects and ephemera related to Santa Claus and Christmas customs from around the world. The collection includes examples of Christmas-related artworks, advertising, packaging, decorations, gift wrap, tableware, toys, gifts, stockings, Santa suits and more.  The collection was assembled over many years by long-time MSU Museum curator Val R. Berryman, who gifted the collection to the MSU Museum upon his passing in 2013. Berryman traveled to the famed Christmas Markets in various towns of Europe to secure rare pieces. The collection includes examples from Holland, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, France, England, Mexico, Philippines, Russia and the United States. He would often showcase his private collection during local holiday events, including the Turner Dodge House in Lansing and the Williamston Depot Museum.

This vast collection spans an entire wall of aptly chosen red and green cabinets in the Museum’s cultural collections repository, which I had great pleasure of browsing one snowy December morning before finals week. The sheer size of the Christmas collection shows Berryman’s commitment to a diverse collection of materials from all over the world. Here are some of my favorites:

One example is a large wooden sculpture of Santa Claus, clinging to a star, carved in the Philippines from mango wood and used as a mold for papier-mâché, these large carvings are made when the wood is still green straight from the tree, and they dry out slowly in the humid climate. On the sides of the sculpture, you can see knife cuts where the intricate papier-mâché Santas were assembled and then cut off the molds. (2008:5.7.14)

Another striking piece in the collection is a nativity scene, complete with three Magi visiting the holy family with angels and animals peeking on from the stable. The scene was made from steel oil drums in Haiti, by artist Cajun Winston. The oil drums are flattened and then hand carved with a hammer and chisel into intricate scenes, with designs etched into the steel and covered with clear lacquer to retain the original color. Along with the nativity scene is a statement from the artist, which begins “I am Cajun Winston; I was born on March 27, 1967 in Croix des Bouquets. Beginning; Two friends they give me a job to flatten 5 drums, as it was my first experiment.” Winston goes on to explain where and how he carved his first drums in Croix des Bouquets, which is a hub of Haitian iron sculpting, and his gratitude for being paid for his artisanship.  (2013:20.1198)

In the Eastern Alpines of Europe, St. Nicolas isn’t the only one who could come and visit young children. He is also accompanied by Krampus, a horned figure who carries wood switches to punish the naughty children who wouldn’t receive gifts from St. Nick. One candy container within the Christmas collection was found in Salzburg, Austria and depicts a red papier-mâché Krampus attached to an ice skate. He’s holding his switches and a chain to scare the children. Believed to have Pre-Christian origins, many alpine towns still have events called Krampuslauf during the holiday season where young men dress up with masks and chains like Krampus to very effectively scare onlookers. In addition to the candy container, the Christmas collection contains everything from statues of Krampus that stand up to a meter tall, to bottles of Polish liquor with Krampus partaking in its contents on the label. (2013:20.1137)

The collection of course has many classic American depictions of Santa Claus in advertisements and pop culture. This includes a punch bowl set of ceramic Santa mugs and pitchers, along with a big jolly cookie jar. The winking Santa has bright red lips and pink cheeks, and I could almost see the red dresses and pin-curled hair of hostesses during various mid-century holiday parties. One of my personal favorites is a painted plaster Santa, looking over the shoulder of a young World War II GI and his girlfriend. Most likely a party favor from a USO Christmastime dance, this piece shows a unique wartime sentimental depiction of Santa Claus. Spanning across continents and centuries of history, the Val R. Berryman Christmas Traditions Collection pays wonderful tribute to a longtime Museum curator and collector. We are so grateful to have his private collection here in the MSU Museum. (2013:20.741, 2013:20.2768.1)

Berkley Sorrells
MSU Museum Research Assistant
Class of 2022

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