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Each Yuletide, Modestan fills his home with villages, Santas

Milton Morton doesn't have much in common with Martha Stewart.

The 63-year-old retired warehouse foreman knows more about forklifts and classic cars than he does about potpourri and wedding favors. But his holiday displays rival anything the domestic diva could put together.

First there are the Santas — hundreds of them, collected over 20 years. Then there are the Christmas villages — tiny houses, churches, shops and stores, set up to evoke small towns at Christmastime, dusted with snow.

Don't forget the personal appearances. Morton, with his broad smile and white beard, looks uncannily like Santa Claus. So much so, he's been asked to don a red suit and visit children at area schools, including Orville Wright Elementary, the school he attended while growing up in Modesto's airport neighborhood.

"I just like Christmas," said Morton, 63. "It's not so much the gifts, it's the whole ball of wax."

Hobby born 20 years ago

For Morton, the holidays wouldn't be complete without decorations. It started some 20 years ago, when he picked up his first Santa at the old Montgomery Ward store on McHenry Avenue.

"It's just grown from there," he said.

Has it ever. Morton adds a couple of Santas every year, keeping his eye out for unusual St. Nicks as he and his wife, Janet, travel the country to attend classic-car shows.

He gets Santas as gifts now that friends have learned of his hobby.

There's the Santa with a leather jacket. There's the Santa with a belly that opens at the push of a button to reveal a working toy train. There's the Santa dressed as a baker on top of the fridge.

"Anywhere I can find a flat surface," Morton said.

He recently discovered Christmas villages. A platform under his Christmas tree holds dozens of miniature people, animals, houses, trees, a plant nursery, a theater, even a tiny Wal-Mart.

He built shelves to house even more villages. He extended the shelves 2 feet this year to display four new villages he bought. He estimates he spends about $200 per year on his hobby.

It's a good thing Morton is handy; he has had to build several shelves in his garage to hold his decorations during the off season.

He and his wife start taking the decorations out after Thanksgiving. Morton does the bulk of the decorating. It takes him about two weeks to arrange everything to his liking.

"He's very particular," said granddaughter Krystal Johnson. "They have to look real."

And they do. So much so that friends wish they had hours to gaze at the displays. His great- grandson, 2-year-old Jeffery, stares in wonder.

The boy's favorite decoration? A life-sized Santa that jiggles its belly as it says "Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas."

Bee staff writer Kerry McCray can be reached at kmccray@modbee.com or 578-2358.

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