Decades ago — from the 1900s to the early 1970s — Christmas wasn’t Christmas without Christmas candy boxes. The tiny decorated cardboard containers were bought by parents, schools, churches or department-store Santas to fill with candy, cookies, popcorn or little toys to give to children. All came with a string handle to hang on the tree.
But many boxes never got to the Christmas tree. After the candy or cookies or popcorn was eaten, kids threw the boxes away or lost them in the bustle of the season. Even those that were saved were fragile and fell apart easily. But they were super-cheap — 100 for $1.50 in the Sears Wish Book — and easy to replace, so adults didn’t care.
Today the boxes are collector’s items. A tree decorated with dozens of the festive container-ornaments are on display in an exhibit titled “Candy Arcade: The Story of Holiday Sweets” at Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury. All items on show are owned by Liz Kopec of Southington, who has collected them for 30 years.
Kopec recalls getting a Christmas box when she was a child.
“It was at a bazaar in Brockton,” Mass., her hometown, she says. Her husband remembers a Christmas box, too. “It was at a firehouse Christmas party in Old Lyme.”
Kopec haunts flea markets, antique shows and auctions for boxes, which feature secular Christmas images: Santa, elves, nutcrackers, candles, trees, bells, poinsettias, sleighs, reindeer, holly, candy canes, toys, wreaths, stockings. Some have religious images, of churches, the star or the Three Wise Men. A few have New Year’s images, such as Father Time and Baby New Year. Some images have nothing to do with Christmas or New Year’s: a dog at a hearth, a parka-wearing child in front of igloos, a cake with candles.
Kopec learns about popular perceptions of Christmas from her collection. “Until the early ’60s, Santa was not always jolly. He was busy. And sometimes the elves looked scary,” she says. “As it got to the 60s, Santa became jollier and jollier. It’s sort of like Halloween. Until the 60s, it was scary. Now it’s less and less scary.” Her exhibit has boxes ranging from the 1920s to 1973, when Sears stopped selling them. They can be seen in the first-floor historical room in the museum.
The Christmas-box exhibit focuses on an experience shared by millions. In an adjoining gallery, an exhibit of found-object sculptures titled “Fantasy Trains” is about one person’s childhood experience. Alexander Shundi wants visitors to enter his world and be amused by his memories and philosophies and his transformation of these preoccupations into art.
“All artists revert back to childhood. The difficulty is presenting things that are subjectively important to you, which most people don’t [care] about,” Shundi says in a phone interview from his home in New York state. “You have to do it in such a fashion that it contains interest and aesthetic profundity enough to be able to be shared by other people.
“But profundity at times can be serious and snooty. I like to inject a moment of contrarian fun.”
Shundi’s sculptures certainly are fun, and some are so weird that a gallery guide is available for people who can’t fathom Shundi’s out-there symbolism and imagery. A transparent train car filled with eyeballs is an homage to surreal art. Another train car holds the White House, which grows arms and strangles a duck. A pig lays on another train car, staring at a cellphone. On another, acrobatic snakes perform a circus. On another Pinocchio is imprisoned in a cage.
Shundi devotes several train cars to his favorite artists, “people I felt gave me a tremendous amount of ideas and pleasure and aided in my process of thinking differently,” he says. Frida Kahlo’s car focuses on her obsessions: her health problems, her husband Diego Rivera, etc. His Van Gogh car re-creates “The Night Cafe.” Another car re-creates Di Chirico’s “Melancholy and Mystery of a Street.” A sequin-spangled animal skull is an homage to Damien Hirst.
Other train cars turn a critical eye on modern life. On one, a caged man is mesmerized by his smartphone, despite being surrounded by birds and a woman playing a harp.
“There’s this really elegant, magnificent muse, elements of beauty and song and dance, and this guy has no idea of any of it because he’s checking on this machine,” Shundi says.
Some just come from Shundi’s wild imaginings. On one train car, a tiny couple dances out of a nose. “I have a cuckoo clock in my studio. When it rings, little Bavarian characters come out and dance,” he says. “They’re coming out of the nostrils instead of the cuckoo clock.”
And why a nose? “I had a cold.”
Shundi’s notion of trains as a pathway to fantasy goes back to his eighth birthday in his native Parma, Italy. His father gave him a handmade train. When Shundi moved to America at 13, he left the train behind, giving it to younger friends.
“I had this pretense of becoming a teenager and rejecting this magic. It didn’t work,” he says. “I always regretted giving away all my toys. I got the concept back when I made these trains.”
CANDY ARCADE: THE STORY OF HOLIDAY SWEETS and FANTASY TRAINS: ALEXANDER SHUNDI are at Mattatuck Museum, 144 West Main St. in Waterbury, until Feb. 11. mattmuseum.org.