Santa might be coming to town, as the song says, but he has already taken up residence in East Hampton Village, at least in the house of the Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. and his wife, Jean, where a collection featuring well over 100 Santas grace the “first couple’s” living room.
“This is one of my favorites,” said Mrs. Rickenbach, pointing out Santa in a peach-colored hot air balloon. This version, an antique, is dressed completely in white with a fur hood, and does not feature the massive avoirdupois of his more recent counterparts.
Another favorite, simply titled the Toy Maker, features a pensive Santa without his red suit or hat, dressed in a green apron and contemplating a recently completed rocking-horse toy in the somber manner of Hamlet with the skull of Yorick.
“I like to mix them up a little every year,” said Mrs. Rickenbach, who admitted that she had even more Santas taking some time off this year in the basement.
The Rickenbachs’ collection has Santa ornaments dating from the 1880s, along with other small Christmas tree figures made of felt and boiled wool, tiny elves, and Toyland soldiers, but still, the image of Saint Nick dominates.
“We started the collection when we were married in 1960,” Mrs. Rickenbach explained. On a tabletop tree, a small felt angel sits on high. “That was our first gift.”
The rest are “Santas we have bought, that we have found in thrift shops, yard sales, antique shops, and gifts from friends,” Mrs. Rickenbach said, along with Santas from the mayor’s childhood.
“Feel how light this is,” said Mrs. Rickenbach of a fading but still beautiful hand-blown glass boat hanging from the tree. It is in the company of other glass ornaments, including a preponderance from Germany, the silvered and painted glass that was adopted as Polonaise in the 1990s but dates back to the 1800s, when the silver effect was achieved with mercury and lead.
Santa figurines of all shapes and sizes — some in sleighs, balloons, even on a dolphin — cover a large Welsh dresser. “It always amazes me how Santa is perceived differently, not only in different eras, but by different societies,” Mrs. Rickenbach said. “Each Santa is special.”
Two of the group were from a pulmonologist who lives in Florida and creates Santa figures in his spare time. “He told me it’s how he keeps his sanity,” Mrs. Rickenbach said. “Aren’t they beautiful?”
Wartime Santas show up in the collection, too. There is a dirigible decoration, and a Civil War Santa who sports a full-length officer’s coat, not in grey or blue, but in the traditional red.
A small nest of felt figures, each two inches tall, features a Santa band. The tiny replicas sport musical instruments — a minuscule paper accordion which has somehow survived for decades, a Lilliputian set of cymbals, a petite banjo — and expressive, drawn-on eyebrows.
Mrs. Rickenbach doesn’t plan the display each year. “It just happens,” she said. “You can’t plan it. You feel it.”
Many of the extended Rickenbach clan will be together for Christmas, as the couple’s two daughters bring their families home for the holidays.
“It used to be difficult when the little ones came,” said Mrs. Rickenbach with a laugh. “But now they’re older. They know not to touch. It’s the adults you have to be careful with,” she said.