Ever wonder how many vintage illuminating Santas can be collected in one year’s time?
That was the question that Chris Willis posed when the first Santa Clones installation went up on East Burnside street back in 2010.
“I just thought it’d be a funny, quirky little project to see how many of these little Santas I could round up on eBay in one year,” Willis said. “I gave myself a time limit and a budget and ended up with 150 at the end of the year.”
The story of why Willis began collecting the Santas in the first place goes back to his grandmother.
“My grandmother had a large four foot, blow mold Santa that was always at her house,” he said. “And for me, that was Christmas: the warm glow, [it’s] very nostalgic for me remembering that.”
Willis’ grandmother ended up gifting him the Santa, starting his journey to collect Christmas blow molds—those hollow, hard plastic lawn decorations — from the now-defunct Empire Plastics Corporation.
“The characters I collect were made [in the] late ’60s, early ’70s.” Willis said. “And at some point, I thought — I dunno if I was reading about, or it had always been in my head — about China’s first emperor’s terracotta warriors. Just all the figures in formation, sort of lined up in groups together. And I thought, ‘Oh, what would a bunch of little 13-inch plastic glowing Santas look like in that configuration?’ "
This was in the days before Instagram and other social media platforms became as widespread as they are today. For the first installation, people would either just stumble across the Santas or they would find the project by word of mouth.
A few years later, Willis put the Santa Clones in a friend’s front yard. By that time, the project had gained a bit of a following, and Willis was leery of publishing a friend’s address outright. So, instead, he decided to give clues to the clones’ location.
“The clues weren’t that difficult,” he said. “And people loved the idea of trying to find them and wanting to make sure nobody told them where they were. They liked the idea of the hunt.”
Willis says one of the biggest challenges of setting up the Santa Clones is actually just finding a location for them.
“I just drove around town and looked for empty retail storefronts,” Willis said. “I would write the number down, give them a call, [and] let them know what I was thinking of doing.”
There is really no rhyme or reason to where the Santa Clones end up. They’ve been scattered throughout the city in Northwest, downtown, Southeast, and North Portland.
This year, because of the pandemic, the Santas have been quarantining together. And while they’re on display, they are keeping with all the state’s recommended precautions.
“All 400 little Santa Clones have masks this year,” Willis said. “I felt that was an appropriate thing to do. Masks are part of our daily lives, so why wouldn’t the Santas have them?”
We’re not going to give away the exact locations of the Santa Clones this year. But, if you want to see them for yourself, Willis offers these clues:
OPB’s Tiffany Camhi and Crystal Ligori went on the hunt for the Santa Clones themselves, and you can hear the full story by clicking on the audio player above.