Gerty Watson has been collecting Santas for more than 40 years

We all have unique ways of getting into the holiday spirit. And, living in a small town makes it so much easier to shake off the stress and embrace Christmas.

For me, there are certain things that just can’t be missed during the run-up to December 25.

There’s the Santa Parade and tree lighting ceremony in Central Park. There’s the annual Christmas concert with my Mom’s choir at St. John’s to name just two.

Most years (depending on the weather; it’s better if it’s snowing!) I take a nostalgic stroll down Main Street ... pausing for a few moments to look at the star shining down from Irving Cliff.

These are just my own little habits. This week, though, I paid a visit to a friend who has a wonderful Christmas tradition of her own.

New Neighborhood

I have known Gertrude “Gerty” Watson since I moved to White Mills.

She is a friendly, hard-working and funny ... as nice a woman as I’ve ever met. She's always looking out for me, asking after my family and making me feel welcome in the neighborhood.

Gerty was self-employed for more than 60 years and she still works part time at Watson Brothers, helping the indefatigable Michelle in the deli-restaurant.

One day last winter, Gerty asked me to stop by her house to see her collection of Santa Claus figurines.

Well, as often happens to many of us during the hectic holiday season, time got away from me and I never made it.

This year, however, I put that visit near the top of my “Christmas To-Do List.” And, boy am I glad I did!

Even though Gerty told me that Mike Stevens had once featured her collection in his “On the Pennsylvania Road” series, I was totally unprepared for the amazing experience I had.

Family First

The story of Gerty and Marvin Watson’s life together is fascinating and romantic.

They first met while he was serving his country in the United States Air Force.

The year was 1959 and Marvin was stationed at a base not far from Gerty’s home in Otterberg, a town not much bigger than Honesdale.

“I saw him walking one day and thought he was a very handsome man,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.

Gerty explains that she mistakenly thought he was already married, so she did her best not to dwell on it.

However, when she eventually discovered Marvin was actually single, she quietly rejoiced.

“I was very happy,” she said, with a big smile.

The date of their official introduction was Nov. 11. Exactly two years later, on Nov. 11, 1961, they were married. That union lasted more than 54 years until Marvin passed away last summer after a brave battle with Parkinson’s.

In the interim, they moved to the US, settled in White Mills and raised a family that includes three children and seven grandchildren.

“I love them all,” Gerty said. “I’m very lucky. No. I’m very blessed.”

Ho! Ho! Ho!

The first Santa Claus figurine Gerty ever acquired came during a trip to visit her aunt in Pittsburgh 40 years ago.

She had no clue back then that this was just the beginning of a hobby that would last more than four decades.

“I didn’t even really think about it at the time,” Gerty said. “It was just a little something I brought home. I had no idea...”

Her voice trails off as we sit chatting at the dining room table.

We are surrounded by smiling, rosy-cheeked Santas of all sizes and descriptions. They occupy every shelf in every room of the entire main floor.

All told, there are more than 1,200 in Gerty’s collection. During the majority of the year, they are lovingly stored away in 35 carefully labeled boxes.

It takes her the better part of 10 days to unpack and display all her Santas “just so” all over the house.

They stay out until the Feast of the Three Kings on January 6. Then, with a little help, she begins the meticulous process of packing them back up ... until the next Christmas.

Defies Description

I’m no expert on collectible Santas, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that Gerty Watson’s display is nothing short of sensational.

Some are simple, others are complex, still others a combination of the two.

They are made of everything from porcelain, metal and clay to paper and wood. There are match boxes, plates, mugs, saucers, clocks, music boxes and snow globes.

The vast majority, though, are just beautifully crafted figurines ranging from less than an inch tall to more than a foot.

The only common denominator among them all is that each one has a story … a story Gerty can still recall instantly even after all these years.

Some of her favorites are Hummels purchased either locally at Hallmark or from the legendary Goebels back in Germany.

“Marvin used to tease me that I was spending all our money on Santas,” she recalls. “I knew everybody by name at Hallmark. I was a very good customer.”

Gerty doesn't have any type of rule set to guide her in choosing Santas for her collection. In fact, there's just one requirement.

“I always look at the face very carefully,” she said. “There has to be something special about his face or I don’t want it.”

Two of her favorites are a classic Goebel Hummel entitles “Nikolaustag” (St. Nicholas’ Day) and an untitled figurine depicting Santa as a shepherd.

This one has a deeply personal connection since Gerty’s grandfather Oskar was an actual shepherd. It's just one story among countless others that make this collection so wonderful.

Christmas Spirit

Sitting in that kitchen and listening to Gerty talk about her life has been one of the highlights of this holiday season for me.

I can't think of many more enjoyable ways to spend an hour than eating homemade cookies, looking at Santa Claus figurines and soaking in the warmth of this house on Elizabeth Street.

The holidays are all about family and the Watsons, especially their smiling matriarch, seem to understand this intuitively.

As Charles Dickens so famously wrote: “They know how to keep Christmas well.”