In contrast to the young Virginia O’Hanlon who, 110 years ago, wrote the New York Sun requesting the truth of whether of not there is a Santa Claus, Virginia Butler of Brownwood knows.
Butler knows because she “makes Santas.”
Butler’s Santas have a myriad of backgrounds. There’s a fisherman Santa; a number of “old world” style Santas whose robes are sewn from antique patchwork quilt pieces and trimmed in real fur; and the latest of Butler’s specialty Santa Claus figures, a Howard Payne University scholar Santa.
“I decided last year I would like to make an HPU Santa, and present it to Dr. Lanny Hall, the university president, ” Butler said.
Butler is a 1960 graduate of Howard Payne College. For most of her career, she was a public school teacher and in 1992 she came to teach at HPU. She is the former head of department of developmental studies. Butler’s husband, Dr. Paul Butler, is also an HPC graduate and is a former professor and vice president for academic affairs at the university.
But her Santa making is a fulfilling labor of love, combining her creative talents, her eye for quality and style and some basic sewing and crafting skills.
Butler figures she’s made between 12 to 15 Santas in the last few years, each with a unique and creative touch. A dear friend had a small “cottage” business making the doll figures for upscale department stores.
“I wanted her to teach me how she did it, and she said she would on the condition I wouldn’t go into competition with her. I honor my promise to her, and as a result make the Santas for people who are very dear to me as a labor of love. I’ve given most of the Santas I’ve made away, but I have about four or five still at home,” Butler said.
For the holidays, the wizened Santas grace several tables, a buffet and credenzas in the Butlers’ home. When the season’s passed, Butler said, she puts them away in a glassed-in cabinet where they can still be seen and enjoyed, but are more centrally located.
The commonality of each of Butler’s Santas is that they all share a Texas heritage. The bases the Santas stand on are slabs of Texas mesquite or pecan wood. Their armatures are old cedar fence posts. The size of the slabs and height of the armature is dictated by the size of the Santa head, and the head, Butler said, is purchased.
It’s been popular the last few years for stores to sell Santa head ornaments, and Butler said, if she sees them, she buys them —provided they meet her criteria of quality craftsmanship, properly elegant beards and “kind and gentle” facial expressions. The purchased ornament heads usually have the traditional Santa stocking-type cap, but Butler usually changes the head gear so go better with her intended theme.
So far, the supply has met her demand, but Butler worries, trends change. The day may be coming where she won’t be able to find the ornaments. Friends have advised her to start checking sources on the Internet.
Butler’s first Santa was fisherman Santa, and one of the few she has kept. He, she said, also ranks as one of her favorites. His robe is made from a piece of “counterpane” fabric Butler’s grandmother wove. His hat is an authentic looking fisherman’s hat. And the wood base on which he stands is a slab of wood that came from the large pecan tree that had to be cut down in front of the Jackson Center at HPU.
Her HPU Santa is wearing a mortar board Butler made, and a blue velvet robe with a gold satin, hand embroidered stole. The Christmas tree standing beside him is decorated with tiny diplomas, each bearing the hand-lettered name of a Howard Payne graduate, and tiny yellow jackets.
“I enjoy the fact that people enjoy these Santas,” Butler said. “Making the Santas has given me a lot of pleasure. They seem to pass on the spirit of Christmas and that makes me glad.”