Pursuits of Happiness: Collecting Christmas

Photos by Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Pat Weisheit of Jasper poses for a portrait in her basement filled with Christmas decorations on Dec. 10. Weisheit started collecting the decor in the 1980s and says the atmosphere gives her joy. "To me, it's just like a fantasy land, really," she said.

Editor's Note: This is second in a series of stories exploring people’s pastimes and the joys the hobbies bring.

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

JASPER — Walking through Pat Weisheit’s home in Jasper is like walking through a Christmas wonderland.

The exterior is adorned with wreaths and bows, and her Christmas tree sits in the window in the living room, shining brightly. In the kitchen, Christmas cheer is seen in holiday tea towels and even Christmas-themed salt and pepper shakers. But Pat’s Christmas masterpiece sits in her basement: a collection of about 50 Santa Claus statues scattered among a Christmas town that begins with a Nativity at the base of the stairs and stretches along two sides of the finished basement where her family — all 28 people — gather for Christmas.

“It takes a long time to set up, but I love doing it,” Pat, 81, said.

Her collection of little lighted buildings and Santa figures is decades in the making. She began collecting Christmas decorations, in general, in the 1970s, then shifted her focus to Santa Clauses in the late 1990s and early 2000s when her nephew, Larry Schuler of Santa Claus, became a professional Santa Claus. Now, she has about 50 Santas.

“That’s kind of my thing,” she said. “If I like them, I buy them.”

Her oldest Santa is one her mother bought. It’s a figure of Santa holding a bubble light. Pat can still hear her father making the joke that Santa was cooking moonshine as the family watched the liquid bubble inside the specialty light bulb.

A Santa Claus decoration, at right, sits in Pat Weisheit's basement in Jasper on Dec. 10. The Santa Claus was bought in 1950 by Weisheit's mother at the J.J. Newberry store on the Dubois County Square. Weisheit remembers that her father laughed about the lamp in the Santa Claus's hand. "He'd say, 'Oh, he's cooking moonshine,'" Weisheit said.

She also has Santa taking a selfie, Santa holding a bluebird’s nest and one encased in a snowglobe. The topper on her basement Christmas tree is a Santa.

Of her collection of 50, Pat insists she doesn’t have a favorite. But if she has to choose, there’s one that spins and plays a song that she really likes. But then, she’s also fond of the one wearing a burlap button-down coat.

“He’s very different,” she said.

Then, there’s the old cloth ones she bought from Precious Blood’s St. Nick Bazaar that one year.

The elaborate Christmas display is one way Pat keeps the magic of Christmas she felt as a child alive in adulthood. People don’t do Christmas like they used to, she said. When she was a child, she said, the children didn’t get to see the Christmas tree until Christmas Eve. It was kept under a sheet and closed behind a set of French doors. Then, on Christmas Eve, Santa would stop by and decorate the tree. Only after that were the children allowed a peek.

“When you looked at that tree the first time, it was awesome,” she recalled. “It was angelic.”

When she got older, Pat married her late husband, Jim. The couple had five daughters — Kathy Bierma of Portland, Oregon, Tina Heim of Jasper, Debbie Buschkoetter of Shelbyville, Tonia Weisheit of Jasper and the late Lisa Gehlhausen.

Pat Weisheit of Jasper points out figurines in her model Christmas village in her basement in Jasper on Dec. 10.

Pat and Jim weren’t as strict about the Christmas tree in the house as Pat’s family had been, but Christmas was still a special time of honoring the birth of Jesus Christ — Pat favors the midnight Masses on Christmas Eve — and of being with family. And although unveiling the Christmas tree isn’t as magical as it used to be, Pat’s great-grandchildren are still mystified by the little buildings and tiny people that make up Pat’s Christmas town.

Even after years of setting it up and taking it down, the display is, at times, mystifying for Pat, as well, and she often spends her evenings sitting in one of the armchairs in front of the hearth in the basement enjoying the soft glow from the buildings of her town and the Christmas tree. It makes her feel close to her family, she said, even when they are far away or in heaven.

Indeed, the one year Pat almost didn’t put up the town was when her daughter, Lisa, passed away. Like her mother, Lisa loved Christmas and decorated her home elaborately, too. That year, Pat recalled, she thought it would be too difficult to decorate knowing Lisa wouldn’t be there to see it, too. But her family convinced her to put it up in Lisa’s memory. Years later, Pat said, she’s glad she didn’t skip that year.

With each passing year, it gets a little more difficult to put up, Pat admitted, as she can’t stand as long as she used to. This year, she spent a week decorating — not all day every day, but at least a few hours every day. She expects it’ll take her just as long to take everything down once the holidays end.

She knows she could keep the decorations up all year, but she won’t do that. It would make it less special. She does, however, leave the Nativity and one shelf of Santas up all year as a reminder of her favorite time of year.

“I think people are more friendly [at Christmastime],” she said. “They think about the time more.”

Pat Weisheit of Jasper sits for a portrait in her basement filled with Christmas decorations in Jasper on Dec. 10. Weisheit started collecting the decor in the 1980s and says the atmosphere gives her joy. "I like to sit down here and think about the good old days," she said.



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