Wade Hamby doesn't have a favorite. Each one of the 50-plus windup toys he sets up around his St. Petersburg home every holiday season makes him smile.
These aren't just windup cars that crawl a few inches across the floor, or a plastic Santa that spouts: "Ho, ho, ho."
Hamby's collection includes a circus elephant that balances on a rolling ball, a bicycle rider with hinged knees that bend as they pedal, and a bear who turns the pages of an ABC book. Almost all are made of metal. A few have felt accents.
"This guy is just hilarious," Hamby said, winding up a miniature bartender in a red felt jacket. The figure moves its left hand up and down, shaking a cocktail shaker. Then the right hand holding a tiny martini glass moves inward and the left hand tilts to "pour" the drink. Finally, the right hand goes up, lifting the martini glass to the bartender's lips.
Many of the toys are more than 40 years old. They were made in the United States, Spain, Japan, China, Russia and Germany long before the aid of modern technology.
Hamby's uncle started the windup toy collection when he owned Lowe's Cafe, a restaurant in Birmingham, Ala.
"His employees gave him one every Christmas," Hamby recounted from his Old Northeast home. Lowe's was open from 1957 to 1977, so the collection grew steadily. Since Hamby was "sort of like a grandchild" to his aunt and uncle, when his uncle died his aunt gave him the toy collection.
Pam Hamby, Wade's wife of 34 years, continued the tradition by giving her husband a windup toy every Christmas. Sons Walker and Mack are grown now, but were always excited in younger years to help pick the annual toy and see it unveiled on Christmas morning.
She found many of the intricate toys long before eBay offered anything possible at the touch of a keyboard, relying on catalogs and connections for years.
"There was one catalog early on, the company scoured basements and attics around the country," Pam Hamby said. Now she often turns to Lilliput, a website that sells vintage toys and replicas. Tin Toy Arcade is another resource.
"I enjoy every one because each one is different," Wade Hamby said. "I loved my uncle and it was meaningful for my aunt to give me the collection."
The key to preserving the toys is getting them out and displaying them just once a year.
"I didn't let the boys play with them by themselves. They helped me get them out of the boxes every year and learned to be very careful," Hamby said. "As long as you put them away right after Christmas they're okay. If you left those suckers out all the time they wouldn't last this long."
Hamby gently wound up a pig standing on its hind legs and wearing a chef's hat.
"Now watch him," he said, setting the toy on the kitchen table.
The pig's left arm jerks up and down three times, prompting a tiny metal T-bone steak to rise up out of the pan and drop back down. Then the right arm moves in and sprinkles a little salt shaker over the steak.
"Can you believe that," Hamby marveled.
Perhaps he does have a favorite, after all.