Santa to help launch Smithsonian exhibit

It's not Thanksgiving yet, but Christmas has arrived at The Smithsonian, marked by the scheduled presence of Santa and Mrs. Claus at Thursday's ribbon-cutting ceremony for the National Museum of American History's newest exhibit.

The "Holidays on Display" exhibit, which officially opens to the public on Friday, explores two major American holiday traditions: department store displays and parade floats, with an emphasis on the golden age of holiday kitsch, from 1920-1960.

Featured prominently among the displays are the parade floats of Washington native Earl Hargrove, Jr., the man behind the decorations for the past 16 presidential inaugurals, and until 2001, for 51 National Christmas trees.

Designed by senior political curator Larry Bird, the exhibit represents a departure for Bird from his usual task of documenting campaigns and politicians. "I'd wanted to meet these people, who have these amazing collections, for years, and this was my chance," Bird told ITK.

Bird's favorite artifact in the exhibit is a catalogue of plans for parade floats from the 1950's. Buyers would choose a float and send in the specs of their vehicles, and the company, Vaughn Display Co., would send back all the elements of the float, perfectly sized. "It's like a guide to every float and every possible holiday in American community life," Bird said.