‘Santa Clones’ return to Portland with a new look for the pandemic

Special Reports

Designer Chris Willis said he received a lot of messages this year from people asking if the Santas would be on display.

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The coronavirus pandemic has halted many holiday traditions this year, but it couldn’t stop the so-called “Santa Clones.”

Designer Chris Willis says he can’t even count how many direct messages he received from fans this year asking if the Santas are going to be on display. 

“2020’s been, you know, super challenging on so many levels and even just bringing this kind of normalcy or tradition or joy… people really appreciate it,” Willis said. “They’re glad that they can count on it to be part of their holiday season.” 

Willis owns about 400, 13-inch, blow-mold plastic Santas. Since 2011, he’s set up the figurines in installations across the city for the holidays. In the early years, word of the Santas’ location spread by people talking. Now, he says it’s primarily driven by Instagram.  

So, after he finished setting up the Santas in an undisclosed location Sunday, Willis made a post with a few hints. 

In less than 24 hours, people have already found the Santa Clones. Some are surprised to see they look a bit different this year. 

“I was there last night and I overheard some people looking in the window and they said, ‘Oh look, it’s kind of sad. They all have little masks on.’ And I was thinking, you know, I guess in a way it is, but it’s also very timely,” Willis said. “This is our reality, but it really shouldn’t keep us from celebrating and enjoying the season as long as we’re safe and smart about it.” 

The Santa Clones installation was revealed in Portland on Dec. 7, 2020. This year, the figurines are all wearing masks. Photo courtesy Chris Willis

Willis says he started putting masks on all the Santas three weeks ago and says it was a time-consuming process. 

One thing he’s glad about is that the storefront he chose this year has four windows, allowing people space to spread out and socially distance themselves while still enjoying the display. 

For Willis, his interest in blow-mold plastic figurines started with a 4-foot Santa Claus his grandmother owned. He says he saw it every year at her house and she eventually gave it to him. After that, he began collecting them and created displays in people’s yards before eventually starting the Santa Clones display. 

“There’s just something about that incandescent bulb that’s glowing inside of them that just, I don’t know, it’s very nostalgic and I think a lot of people can sort of connect with that, relate to it,” Willis said.

He says his inspiration for the Santa Clones came from the Terracotta Army, a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of the first emperor of China. 

“They were all sort of unearthed in formation and I thought, wow, that’s really an amazing sort of image. What would that look like with hundreds of 13-inch, plastic Santas?” Willis said. 

Since the tradition began in 2011, it’s gained a large following and Willis continues to accumulate Santas. He says he finds most of them on Ebay, but has also found them at estate sales and antique shops. 

The Santas were originally created by Empire Plastics Corporation, a North Carolina business that began making holiday blow molds in the late 1960s. Willis says the Santas were made in 1968. The business shut down in the 1990s. 

On the bottom of every Santa figurine, Willis writes where it came from. In 2021, for the 10th anniversary of the Santa Clones installation, Willis is hoping to create a map so people can see where all the Santas came from before arriving in Portland. 

Willis says he doesn’t know when he’ll stop collecting the Santas. He could collect 100 more or even double his collection. One thing he does know is that setting up the Santa Clones takes a lot of time and a lot of space. That’s something he’s taking into consideration as the number increases.

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