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A Sleigh Full of Santas

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Story by Gay Lyons | Photography by Tassi Williams

Megan Venable stores her 230-piece Santa collection in five storage bins, but she could easily fill a small sleigh.

The Santas range in size from three feet to a few inches. She inherited the first 180 pieces from her grandmother, Mary Venable. Santa Clauses are a Venable family tradition. Her grandfather, Sam Venable, Sr., dressed as Santa Claus in Knoxville’s Christmas parade for a number of years prior to his death in 1972.

Mary’s first Santa--one foot tall--was a gift from a friend the first Christmas after “Big Sam” passed away. Sam Venable, Jr., Megan’s father, later played Santa for the family, wearing the same Santa suit, for many years; Megan’s cousin, Steve Venable, now plays the role, wearing the same suit and beard.

“It’s hideous,” said Megan, “but it’s our tradition.” Meanwhile Mary’s collection grew to 180 by the time Megan inherited it in 2003.

“I don’t know my grandmother’s stories,” said Megan, with regret. “I can tell you the provenance of every one of mine. My grandmother’s first Santa must have been a popular cast. I posted a photo of it on Facebook in 2014, and a friend from Australia said, ‘I have one, too.’ I found one like it at a yard sale in Ocean Isle, North Carolina, this past July.”

“My father bought me a three foot one last Christmas,” she continued, “but the vast majority are small.”

Megan has established her own traditions for displaying her collection. “I take everything off the shelves in the corner cabinets and dust everything. Then I take all the Santas out. They’re in five Rubbermaid bins. When I lived on Gay Street, I paid for a storage unit to store the Santas. It was an ordeal.”

These days the Santas are stored in the attic of the home she shares with husband, Benny Smith, station manager and program director at WUTK, and his daughter, Ella.

“Benny truly enjoys this history,” said Megan. “He gets the Santas out of the attic without my even asking. They go up on November 1. I do it in one day. November 1 is Santa Day. The tree is not put up until after Thanksgiving. I have my standards.” Megan’s Santas come from many places. “I don’t want a gazillion of them,” she said. “Most of them are free. Most of them just come to me. It’s the found things. It’s the stories.”

Her Santa Claus Mardi Gras beads required some effort. “I had wanted them for years,” said Megan. “I never could find them. We were at Mardi Gras, and a guy from a krewe had them, the only ones I’d ever seen. I chased him down and when the parade paused, I made a deal with him.”

“When I inherited the collection, I wasn’t sure about it,” she continued. “I thought it might make me sad about my grandmother, but you can’t cry. It’s a fun collection.”

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