The Jolly History of Steiff’s Santa Claus Dolls

Rebekah Kaufman
Published on
Can you find the tiny vintage Santa in this Christmas Noah's ark display? Photo from the author’s collection.
Can you find the tiny vintage Santa in this Christmas Noah’s ark display? Photo from the author’s collection.

Margarete Steiff GmbH, the legendary toy company from Germany, has created a number of irresistible Santa dolls over the years. For many families, especially of German descent, Steiff dolls are just as much of a holiday tradition as trees and stockings. That’s easy to understand, given their appeal! Let’s take a look at some of the highlights of Steiff’s Santa Claus dolls.

The earliest references to Christmas in Steiff’s collateral appeared in the early 1910s, when the company produced holiday advertising featuring standard line items under trees and used as ornaments. However, none of the items featured were specifically made for Christmas. The first Santa Claus appeared in the general line in the early 1920s, but it was not a doll in the traditional sense. It was a 20 cm. wooden Santa Claus toy on a rocking base. Rocking Santa was featured in the catalog from 1923 through 1927.  According to the 1924 catalog, this wobbly figure cost 2.5 marks and was made of the best wood, finely crafted, and colorfully painted with luminous colors.

1924 Steiff catalog page showing Rocking Santa. Photo from the author’s collection.
1924 Steiff catalog page showing Rocking Santa. Photo from the author’s collection.

Christmas became a higher priority for Steiff in the early 1950s, when the company was re-establishing its presence as a leading international toymaker post World War II. Like Santa at the helm of his sled, racing across a dark wintery sky, the arrival of a Steiff Santa doll in 1953 was a very welcome sight indeed.  Steiff’s earliest Santa doll was 31 cm. and five-ways jointed. He had a rubber head, felt body, bright red felt suit and cap, and a white, fluffy mohair beard. By 1955, this design was also produced in 13 and 18 cm. These Santa dolls appeared in the line through 1963 and were, and remain, year-round favorites with collectors worldwide.

1950s-era Steiff Santa dolls. Photo from the author’s collection.
1950s-era Steiff Santa dolls. Photo from the author’s collection.

Due to his popularity, Steiff’s Santa Claus doll pattern was also made as a 21 cm. hand puppet from 1954 through 1961. This puppet had a molded head identical in design to the full-bodied doll. He was detailed with a white full mohair beard and hair, felt hands with stitched digits, and a felt body. He was a little larger in scale than other hand puppets of the time, which generally measured 17 cm. He was dressed in a handsome red felt jacket and hat. His outfit, like the doll from which he was based, was detailed with real white mohair trim down the front of his coat, around his hat, and around his cuffs. His hat was topped off with a white wooly pom-pom.

Santa hand puppet. Photo from the author’s collection.
Santa hand puppet. Photo from the author’s collection.

One of the most astonishing of Steiff’s Santa Claus dolls is the company’s display or practically life-sized version. This big daddy- 150 cm., or nearly 5 feet tall -was manufactured in the 1960s. These supersized Steiff Santa dolls were dressed to the nines in fine felt tailored suits trimmed in mohair, just like their rock star namesake! Today, these are extremely rare, as, for the most part, time has not been kind to them. Because their faces were made from rubber, they tend to dry out, sink, and crack as the years go by. Few were made, and not too many are still around, making existing examples as rare as hen’s teeth.

Steiff Santa catalog display. Photo from the author’s collection.
Steiff Santa catalog display. Photo from the author’s collection.

In the 1970s, due to pressure from other toy manufacturers, Steiff began economizing on their design and production to control costs and stay competitive. They produced a series of unjointed, inexpensive, and cone-shaped plush dolls and animals in the “Buzzel” style. 

One noteworthy example of Steiff’s 1970-era Buzzel production is the company’s 20 cm. standing Buzzel Santa Claus doll. He is made from red and white dralon material and felt, with a long, white dralon beard. His face is precious and simple; he has small blue felt eyes, a round peach colored felt nose, and a tiny red circle for his lips. Santa is wearing his traditional Santa suit which is integral to his body. He carries a brown Santa sack, which has a little bell in it. 

This particular doll was produced in this size only from 1972 to 1974. These dolls were designed for fun, play, and love so, it is really rare to find one in collectible condition nearly half a century after manufacturing.

Buzzel Santa. Photo from the author’s collection.
Buzzel Santa. Photo from the author’s collection.

From the 1980s onward, Steiff’s line regularly featured Santa Claus-themed items and novelties. Although a few humanized Santa dolls were issued, most of these editions were in the form of Teddy bears dressed as the merry man in red. These have included holiday ornaments, soft baby toys, musical items, and even nutcrackers, smokers, and festive candelabras.  Given his legacy status, the company’s 1950s-era Santa doll was reissued in 19 and 28 cm. as a US exclusive from 1984 through 1988. However, many enthusiasts who came of age with Steiff consider the company’s 1970 and early-era Santa Claus items to be the most authentic representation of the Steiff holiday spirit.

1980s-era Santa Doll replica. Photo from the author’s collection.
1980s-era Santa Doll replica. Photo from the author’s collection.

Rebekah Kaufman is a regular contributor to numerous international print and online publications, lectures across the US and Europe, and provides vintage Steiff consulting and expertise to the media, auction houses, and industry partners. She has no affiliation with Margarete Steiff GmbH or Steiff North America. For more information on vintage Steiff, read Kaufman’s spotlight on vintage Steiff collectibles from earlier this year or visit her blog, My Steiff Life.