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Santa's biggest fan: Cornwall woman collects 500 St. Nicks

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CAROL TILLMAN HOLDS one of the more than 500 Santas she has collected over the last 30 years. Tillman currently displays most of her collection in her Moonlit Alpacas retail shop off Route 125 in Cornwall.<br /> Independent photo/Trent Campbell

By JOHN FLOWERS

CORNWALL — Santa Claus will have a busy agenda on Dec. 24, but he may not be able to resist spending a little extra time at the Tillmans’ home in Cornwall this Christmas Eve.

There, he will find a veritable Santa “shrine” — a collection of hundreds of Santa dolls, figurines and other Saint Nick likenesses that Carol Tillman has avidly collected during the past three decades.

At last count, Tillman had assembled a cheerful legion of more than 500 Santas that she dutifully takes out of warm-weather hibernation each Thanksgiving for display around her home when the window panes start getting frosty.

She tenderly places as many of them as she can on the limited perches she has in her home, including on shelves in her small Moonlit Alpacas retail store off Route 125. It’s impossible not to feel the holiday spirit while under the gaze of the many rosy-cheeked, cherubic St. Nicks, each one a little different than the other.

Tillman confesses to being a little incredulous every time she pulls her collection out of mothballs. Even she has a tough time keeping track of where all the jolly men came from.

“It’s a question, when you have to move them, you really ask yourself,” she said with a chuckle.

But she vividly remembers her first Santa, which she received as a gift when she was 18. It’s a German “smoker” — a pipe toting Santa in which one can burn incense.

“That kind of started it, and it went from there,” said Tillman.

Each ensuing year, there was no mystery about what was prominently featured on Tillman’s Christmas list. She wanted Santas, Santas and more Santas — and her friends and family have dutifully obliged.

Tillman has also picked out her own share of Santas, paying from a few bucks to several hundred dollars for creations that meet her fancy.

She has a few conditions for Santas that hope to join her club.

“It has to be different; I look mostly at the face — does the face appeal to me?” said Tillman. If it does, she often completes the sale.

“I pretty much have a Santa from every place I have ever traveled,” she said.

Her collection ranges from tiny, intricately carved wooden Santas to a paper maché version that stands more than two-feet tall. Some are made of porcelain; others are made of pewter, blown glass and silver. Some are stuffed with down, others are filled with cookies, because they double as jars. Others can be pulled along as toys, while at least one buzzes around the ceiling as part of an airplane mobile.

Some of the Santas can be seen in their traditional element, toting sacks of toys on sleighs powered by reindeer. But some of her St. Nicks offer a departure from the norm: One prefers to make his Christmas Eve runs on an elephant, while another has chosen horseback. Yet another Father Christmas — one of Tillman’s favorites — is dressed in sailor’s garb, apparently ready to set sail to deliver presents to children on remote islands.

Tillman has Santas that hail from faraway places like Russia, Holland, France, Italy, Ireland, the Caribbean, as well as from a variety of states, including Georgia, Alaska, Missouri, her home state of Louisiana, and of course, Vermont.

Perhaps her most cherished Santas were made by her mom, Jayne Ganschinietz. Her creations include miniature Santas contained in small, see-through “room boxes.” The Santas are featured in themed scenes — for example, in one case, the merry fellow is seen admiring artwork in a museum setting.

Tillman gets a lot of interesting comments from visitors who see her collection.

“They are either in awe, or they think I am an absolute nut to go to this much trouble, time in and time out, to haul (the collection) out and put it all away,” a process that Tillman said takes around a week.

Only one Santa gets year-round billing. It’s a Delpht porcelain bust of the jolly man himself that sits atop the Tillmans’ piano. The rest of the Santas return to storage after the holidays — but not too soon.

“I am a purist; none of the Santas go away until Epiphany,” she said, referring to the Christian holiday that falls on Jan. 6.

Winter holiday theme collections are also taking hold in the next generation of the Tillman family.

Tillman’s daughter Emery Kate has started her own Santa collection — with an Irish flair. Since she was born on St. Patrick’s Day, Emery Kate gravitates toward Santas that sport some green, as opposed to the traditional red Father Christmas garb.

Then there’s daughter Kira Sage, whose budding collection is all about snowmen.

Meanwhile, Carol Tillman has no plans to temper her Christmas spirit when it comes to Santa collecting — even if it comes down to asking her husband, Cass, to build another closet.

“Santa Claus is eternal hope,” Tillman said. “It’s too bad we don’t carry that nicety of Christmas throughout the year. Everything becomes cheerful, bright and happy. There is always this hope that Santa Claus will have shown up Christmas morning and everything you wanted was under the tree.”

Tillman is inviting anyone wishing to see her Santa collection to come to the Moonlit Alpaca store on Route 125 in Cornwall between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday.

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