In the USA and South Africa, Coca-Cola collectors celebrate Christmas with some truly amazing decorations, filling their homes to the brim with classic Santas and vintage memorabilia.
It begins to look a lot like Christmas in the Buchholz house when the vintage plush Coca-Cola Santas come out.
Karleen Buchholz of Dunwoody, Georgia, estimates she has about 30 of the rosy-cheeked dolls, made by the Rushton Company of Atlanta and first given out by Coca-Cola bottlers as promotional items in 1957. She brings them out every December and places them around her Christmas tree, which is also filled with Coca-Cola-themed ornaments.
Karleen and her husband John have been collecting Coke memorabilia for 39 years, but it’s the winter holidays that bring out some of their most prized items. Ceramic Santas and polar bears dance to "Jingle Bells" and other holiday tunes. Biscuits are stored in a ceramic Coca-Cola Santa Claus jar with "the gift for thirst" scrolled at the bottom. Her favourite ornament features Santa Claus reading a letter perched below a Coke bottle on the fireplace: "Dear Santa: Please Pause Here. Jimmy."
“Santa Claus and Coca-Cola go hand in hand,” Karleen says.
Collectors from Michigan to South Africa take similar delight in displaying their own unique Christmas-themed Coca-Cola items during the holidays. Some keep it simple with classic red-and-white ornaments and glasses etched with Haddon Sundblom-drawn Santa Clauses. Others roll out thousands of items acquired over decades of collecting, from tree lights made of Diet Coke cans to a complete limited edition fleet of holiday-themed Speedway Coca-Cola semi-trucks.
“To me, Coca-Cola is a huge contributor of the joy of Christmas,” says Hendrik Botha of Pretoria, South Africa. A Coca-Cola collector since 2000, Botha debuted a Coke-themed Christmas tree in 2009 and it was such a hit that the holiday decorating just snowballed from there.
The light-up Coca-Cola Christmas trucks, artist Haddon Sundblom's Santa Claus illustrations, and the dancing polar bears that play holiday music - it all puts people in a festive spirit, Botha says. His holiday collection includes oversized red Coca-Cola stockings, vintage Season's Greetings advertisements in multiple languages, and dozens of stuffed polar bears (including one sitting atop a tree holding a lighted red star). In 2011 and 2013, Botha opened up the Coca-Cola-themed areas of his home to the public during the holidays, asking visitors to bring a donation of school stationery, which he gave to a rural school.
Gary Cuyler of Hastings, Michigan, loves his Coca-Cola Christmas room so much that he leaves the decor up year-round. Cuyler, a retired theatre director and college professor, bought his first Coca-Cola tray from a local supermarket at the age of 15. Christmas ornaments soon followed and now he has a Coca-Cola room in his house trimmed in red and green and filled with trays, glasses, revolving light-up mobiles, and a 10-ft. tree "totally covered" in Coca-Cola ornaments and strung with several different types of Coca-Cola Christmas lights.
There's also a multi-piece Coca-Cola Town Square Village Christmas collection, accrued individually over time by his mother, and presented to him at Christmas years ago. "That one is my favourite," he says. His mother passed away soon after, and "that village gives me the best memories."
Collector Robin Cillo, of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, also singles out a favourite gift in her own huge Coca-Cola holiday collection - an ornament, given to her by her mother in the 1970s, of Santa Claus pushing a two-wheel cart holding four bottles of Coke.
"It was my first ornament," she says. Before that, she had trimmed her tree with key chains and stuffed animals. Now she has more than 300 ornaments - all with a Coca-Cola theme - as well as stockings, dozens of Coca-Cola Christmas Village pieces, and a giant inflatable polar bear holding a bottle of Coke.
For Cuyler, the most rewarding part of all the work he puts into decorating is witnessing the reaction of his guests when they see his holiday extravaganza. On Christmas Eve, his nieces and nephews and their families traditionally come over and soon head downstairs to the Coca-Cola room, where they are greeted by a tree ablaze with lights, whirring ceiling mobiles, dancing Santas, and a three-foot-tall LED Coke bottle on ice.
“I usually walk in ahead because it’s so much fun to see their faces. Their eyes usually get large and they break out into these big grins,” Cuyler says. "Half the fun is seeing that joy."
Closer to home and this side of the pond, Lillian O’Donoghue, from Glanmire, Cork, is one of Ireland’s most talked about Coca-Cola collectors. Read about her amazing collection here.