When I think of Christmas, certain holiday traditions spring to mind: a family outing to cut down the perfect tree, for one. (Is there anything else like the smell of sap on your gloves?) And searching for a legal parking spot within two miles of a mall's department store. Also, listening to Nat King Cole for the first time in 11 months.
For me, on the day after Thanksgiving, the whole world tips in the direction of Christmas. There are Black Friday sales, Christmas carols hit the radio, and lights and candles adorn neighbors' houses. If we're fortunate, it even snows a lot early in the season in the Northeast, where I live.
One personal tradition goes back about 25 years. When I was a boy, my mother started collecting small Christmas village pieces.
These included a church, lighted trees, and figurines of carolers, and were displayed on a long, narrow table in the living room.
As a boy, I can remember examining the church, painted white with silver shutters. Thin transparent paper covered the windows and resembled stained glass. A bell decorated with silver glitter "tolled" under the steeple.
The church was hollow, except for a big bulb that illuminated the ceramic building. But in my imagination, there were pews full of people inside and the faint sound of an organ.
For me, this village represented an alternate world – a world of peace and celebration, an idyllic holiday fantasy. Seeing it always put me in a good mood.
As the years passed, my mother purchased more buildings, figurines, and trees. One year, it was an ice-skating pond. Then, a toyshop, a coffeehouse, Ebenezer Scrooge's house, a sleigh, a snow-covered bridge, and, to my delight, a police station. (There just had to be order in this tiny village.) Soon, the table was filled from end to end with various buildings, all aglow, a scene reminiscent of Dickens.
My mother took pride in her holiday village. Her holiday spirit came alive when it was time to assemble it. Every piece had a certain place; the miniature neighborhood had to be balanced. She stacked old National Geographic magazines beneath a white cloth in the back row to provide some topography to the scene.
My mom's enthusiasm affected me. After years of watching her arrange the village, I began to help. Sometimes, we'd disagree about where certain buildings went. ("Police don't need to guard the toyshop!" ... "But what if there's shoplifting?") Eventually we'd arrive at some consensus. ("Let's put the cops outside the coffeehouse.")
Assembling the village became a tradition as significant as decorating the Christmas tree. Each year, we tried to top the previous year's arrangement.
As I grew older – moving through high school, college, and to my first job out of state – my involvement in setting up the Christmas village diminished.
If I happened to be around and had some time, I would help my mother display the buildings, sprinkle the plastic shreds of "snow" over the table, flick the lights on, and then stand back and gaze at the peaceful Christmas scene.
Even though I didn't set up the village every year, I always enjoyed the scene when I came home at Christmastime.
My mother still brings out her village in the days following Thanksgiving. A giant tree made of pine cones and covered with lights is now the centerpiece, towering above the buildings. When I visit my parents' house in December, I always have to admire the setup. Examining the toyshop, coffeehouse, police station, and pond brings back special memories.
After I got married six years ago, my wife and I started collecting our own village pieces.
Since then, we've purchased seven buildings – among them, a church of our own, a chowder house (my favorite), a school, a newspaper publisher, and a travel agency. All have special significance.
It feels strange, in a way, to feel so connected to a tiny ceramic village. When people ask about it, I try to explain why I enjoy it and where it started. But there's so much more to it than that. It's about tradition and the story of a holiday scene that unfolds only inside each observer's mind.