On The French Riviera, Santa Stands Watch at a Museum Dedicated to Childhood

United Press International

Santa Claus has traded his reindeer for suntan lotion and moved to the French Riviera.

Since the Father Christmas museum opened in Canet, a small town on the shores of the Mediterranean, thousands of children of all ages have visited the “museum for childhood” and its collection of toys--some of which date back 4,000 years.

Founder Jean-Claude Baudot not only resembles St. Nick by his whitened hair, rosy cheeks and the twinkling eyes, but has even given Canet a bumper Christmas present: a collection of 3,500 toys, games and dolls gathered over 25 years from garbage cans and flea markets.


“It started in Paris when I found a puppet theater in the garbage,” said Baudot, 52, who lives in the French capital when he is not in Canet. “I’ve been collecting ever since.”

Egyptian Doll in Collection

His collection includes a 4,000-year-old Egyptian doll with movable arms and legs and an 1870s paper airplane made 20 years before planes actually flew.

“I bought that at a flea market for 10 francs ($1.50),” he said. The old take their place beside futuristic toys and games.

Baudot, who grew up in the Canet area and owns a nearby vineyard, said he conceived of the museum as a way “to give the town an identity.”

“I asked the town to build a museum dedicated to childhood,” he said. Mayor Jacques Coupet liked the idea and the 20-million-franc ($3-million) project was under way.

Canet was chosen because of its “many, many children” and the wide stretch of beach that the museum faces, Baudot said. A 150-foot statue of Santa Claus for the beach is in the works, “like the Statue of Liberty,” Baudot said.

Hall of Mirrors, Lights

The museum took only a year to construct and furnish, and Baudot said 1,000 visitors a day last summer entered exhibits through the “Father Christmas Palace,” a hall of mirrors and lights.

Marionettes, circuses and magic objects fill the “World of the Imagination” leading to life-size dolls inhabiting a mansion of games, pictures and puzzles.

A brief visit to “The Real World” of cars, boats and machines is led by an electric train circling the boundaries separating it from the display of artifacts.

The visit ends in the “Room of Anticipation,” full of toy inventions and audio-visual “what ifs.”

Baudot also displays what he bills as the “Family Tree of Santa Claus,” beginning with pagan gods and Christian saints who were special patrons of children and ending with the introduction of modern Santa Claus by Clement Clarke Moore in his 1822 poem “The Night Before Christmas.”

Santa From New York

“Santa Claus came from the United States, from New York,” Baudot said, although he said the origins of the Christmas gift-giving is a mystery.

Baudot gave his gift in his own mysterious fashion. When the museum opened in May, Father Christmas told the public in a letter that the unseasonal gift was really part of a ransom.

“Jacques Coupet, the mayor of Canet in Roussillon, kidnaped me,” wrote the jolly old elf, adding the museum’s games, toys and dolls were the ransom. “My friend Jean-Claude Baudot gathered it.”

But the liberated St. Nick, comparing the French Riviera to the North Pole, liked it so much that he decided to stay, making his home in the fanciful Santa Claus Museum, the letter said.