‘I still believe in him’

Story and photo
by Megan Ledbetter

During the holidays, the walk down one of the long Harding Place hallways passes doors decorated for Christmas in every way imaginable. From traditional Christmas décor to a snowman in a beach chair, this hallway had it all. There was no shortage of Christmas spirit. But, when you reached the last room at the end of the hall, a glass case filled and topped with Santa figurines and crafts welcomed you to Wanda Emde’s apartment, where she lives with her sister. 

Walking into Emde’s apartment was like entering a holiday store’s Santa Claus section. There were throw pillows on the couch, large glass cases of Santas with mirrors in the back flanking the living room window and ornaments on each door knob in the kitchen and living room. Emde, who has lost nearly all her eyesight, had on her Santa Clause socks and brooch and was sitting in an arm chair in the living room right in front of the biggest glass case of some of her prized possessions. 

“I don’t know when I quit thinking there was a Santa, but I guess never,” Emde said. 

“You haven’t quit,” her sister shouted from the next room. 

“I still believe in him,” Emde agreed, laughing. 

When Emde’s eldest daughter was in the first grade, she made a Santa Clause figurine out of construction paper and cotton balls. When she brought it home to her mother, Emde could not part with it and still has it in perfect condition to this day. This is where her Santa Claus collection began. 

White County’s Wanda Emde has an extensive collection of Santa Claus figures that she is happy to share with others.

“Back when I started I didn’t have any money to go to the store and buy them, so after Christmas, the dollar store would have some left that they would put on real cheap,” Emde said. “I started buying them a little at a time. Then, later on, I had a little bit of money, and I bought them before Christmas and you could pick out some real pretty ones.” 

She started buying them at dollar stores in Bald Knob and later began buying them at places like Hobby Lobby. As she accumulated more and more Santa Clauses for her home, people began to take notice. It would take her a couple weeks every October to unpack them all, and when it was time to put them away again, she would sit down, meticulously wrap each one back up and tell them goodbye. She had children over during the holidays just to see her collection, and that is when she began numbering each one. 

“I would invite the kids to come to the house to see the Santas, and they had to guess how many I had, so I thought if they had to guess I was going to have to keep a better count,” Emde said. “So, I started numbering them and writing the number on the bottom of them. I was not particularly interested in getting a certain number. It was just that I needed to know when the kids guessed who was closest; then I would give a prize to the one that got closest.” 

When she stopped actively collecting, she had 1,658 Santas, but she still, out of all the choices, could not pick a favorite. 

“I love them all. I would have a favorite, then I would get another favorite, then I would get another favorite,” Emde said.

To those that know her though, Emde is much more than a collector of everything Santa Claus. She is a Sunday school teacher, a Girl Scout troop leader and even a host for an international student and an international teacher. Her love for children was exemplified in everything she did, but, after being diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa about 20 years ago, her eyesight has gradually gotten worse, especially over the past six to eight years. After living in the same home in Bald Knob for 60 years, Emde recently moved to Harding Place where her eyesight has become limited to shadows. Even after moving to Harding Place, she still spends her time influencing the lives of others. She sews the arm holes of pillow case dresses and rolls the strips of plastic for the mats the women in Harding Place make and send to Haiti. 

“We knew two years ago that we were on the list for Harding Place. We knew then that we had to do something. We just had to split them up and do something with them,” Emde said. “It was kind of sad giving them up. Some of them I have had for 50 years, so they are like your children, but I knew I had to find a place for them.” 

Emde and her daughters gave Santa Claus collections to Main Street Searcy, the Searcy Public Library, different rest homes and the Sunshine School, and over 650 went to the Carmichael Center, the largest display outside her own home. 

“(But) I just couldn’t get rid of everything when I moved over here,” Emde said. 

Despite giving so many away, her Harding Place apartment is still full of Santas of all shapes, sizes and forms. The ones she kept for her Harding Place apartment are ones that her friends and family have given her, and their names are on the bottom of them so that they can get them back when she is done with them.