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Romantic Homes
December 2004 – Volume 17, No. 12
It Takes a Village – by Cheryl Hackett-Galvin

Beautifully detailed porcelain villages and figurines celebrate the spirit of an old-fashioned yuletide.

Keeping traditions alive is one of the most magical things about the holiday season. Trimming a tree, watching It’s a Wonderful Life, singing “White Christmas” or sending Currier & Ives greeting cards to loved ones has made spirits blithe for generations. Not surprisingly, these festivities embed heartwarming images in our collective memories. So much so, that whenever we think of the holidays, we picture a snow-covered hamlet where villagers gaze into shop windows aglow with firelight, listen to carolers, enjoy sleigh rides and ice skate on ponds.


Perhaps nostalgia explains why so many of us are inspired to collect ceramic and porcelain villages. Department 56, a giftware company based in Eden Prairie, Minnesota has been crafting holiday villages that showcase exquisite attention to detail since 1976.

According to Melinda Seegers, manager of Consumer services at Department 56, “The idea to make villages began on Christmas Eve when a group of friends from the company set off to a party at a small country inn nestled in a quiet river town decorated for the holidays. All evening, the conversation was about Christmas memories and the visions the town had evoked. Soon the idea for a lighted Christmas village was born.

“The first ceramic village introduced featured four houses and two churches. And today Department 56 has over 1,000 designs.” She adds, “Many of the pieces pull at collectors’ heartstrings. A building may remind someone of their grandmother’s house or the church they were married in. And some pieces remind families of special things they did together, like picking out a Christmas tree, or a place they traveled to.”

Over the years, Department 56 has launched several new villages with specific themes. Romantics would especially be drawn to the Dickens’ Village Series®, evoking Victorian England; the New England Village® Series, recalling historic scenes from the 1800s; the Alpine Village Series®, capturing the charm of the European mountains; and the North Pole Series™, honoring the legend of Santa Claus.

Interestingly enough, before Department 56 began producing holiday villages, German and Japanese manufacturers cornered the market with charming cardboard villages that sold in five-and-dime stores in the early part of the 20th century. The boxed sets originally sold for less than a dollar and included eight cardboard buildings with painted or printed façades, cellophane windows and doors and white cotton-topped roofs. Each building stood about two inches tall and featured a hole for inserting a tiny light or a piece of candy. Some cardboard houses had secret compartments meant for hiding a small gift. The cardboard villages remained popular until the 1950s when consumer interest waned and production ceased all together. Because of their fragile construction, few cardboard villages have survived the test of time and remaining ones are prized by collectors today.

MARKET TO MARKET
Department 56 is a wholesale manufacturer that sells to a network of authorized dealers throughout the United States and Canada. The dealers display and sell the collections year-round. Department 56 introduces new pieces to the collections every December and makes them available to collectors in the summer. The company also retires selected designs on an annual basis. As a result, collectors hoping to complete a set often turn to secondary markets. Retired Department 56 items are sold on the Internet and at antique venues. Before purchasing a building or figurine, collectors should always check for the Department 56 hallmark on the bottom of the piece and refer to current collectibles pricing guides to determine values.

They say mimicry is the highest form of flattery. Such is the case with Department 56 and in recent years many imitations have been appearing on the shelves of national discount retailers. Before purchasing a village, it may be wise to compare the quality and prices of the collectible villages with the novelty villages to determine which best suits your needs and budget.

Interest in collecting Department 56 villages is so great that collectors subscribe to magazines and newsletters, as well as attend conventions and chat online. Describing the phenomena, Melinda says, “So many collectors have forged friendships with other collectors across the country. And it is wonderful to see people of all ages and from all walks of life sharing the same feelings for the villages.” She adds, “So many collectors tell me that they love coming home at the end of a busy day and turning on the lights and admiring the villages.”

COLLECTORS’ CHRISTMAS
Several years ago, Cathy Kenney of Tiverton, Rhode Island inherited a staggering collection of Department 56 buildings, figurines and accessories from her mother-in-law. Every year since, her husband Michael and their three children, Cate, Jim and Alexandra, designate a Saturday in December to set up their village. On the appointed day, Michael treats their daughters to a special outing while Cathy and their son stay home and decorate the home with the collection. By day’s end, many nooks and crannies are filled with heartfelt vignettes from the North Pole Series™. Says Cathy, “We love the villages because they epitomize an old-fashioned Christmas in Europe or New England. And the villages fill our home with the comfort and warmth of the way Christmas used to be.”

Roseann Hackett of Naples, Florida started her Department 56 collection nearly 30 years ago when her eldest daughter gave her a church from the Dickens’ Village Series® as a Christmas present. In the ensuing years, family and friends continued to add to the collection at Christmastime. Today Roseann has over 100 buildings, figurines and accessories that she displays in an antique china cabinet, Roseann says, “The village is so lovely and we enjoy looking at it year-round.” She adds, “Now that I am a grandmother, I hope to pass down the collection for future generations to enjoy.”

Ceramic and porcelain villages are a lovely holiday adornment for your home. Entire collections can be displayed en masse atop mantels and shelves. Or create poignant scenes throughout your home on tabletops, window ledges and staircases. Add fresh greens and ornaments to the mix and soon you will discover that to fill your home with the holiday spirit – all it takes is a village.