A five-member Salvation Army band playing in front of a green gazebo. Two sledders careening down a frozen waterfall. A poulterer, a pair of dead fowl hanging limply in each hand, standing behind a trio of Christmas carolers. Two horse-and-buggies charging at one another while traveling headlong down a one-lane cobblestone street– their collision inevitable and yet impossible.
Just a day in the life of the Dickens’ Village.
For those who have no idea what I’m taking about: the “Dickens’ Village” is a series of holiday collectibles– everything from buildings to figurines to various “olde towne” accessories– put out by the Department 56 company. Introduced in 1984, the series was originally based on the Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol,” but the company eventually expanded their scope by introducing new pieces—some inspired by other Dickens novels, others depicting life in Victorian London in general.
The Dickens’ Village pieces, especially the buildings, are beautifully ornate, shockingly expensive, and not particularly practical. Apart from a few with moving parts (skaters that glide around a frozen pond, for example, or dancers that waltz around in a living room window), most pieces don’t really do anything—nor are they supposed to. Really, all these pieces are meant to do is sit on a tabletop or under the Christmas tree and, in all their illuminated glory, usher in the holiday mood.
Of course, the Dickens’ series isn’t the only “holiday collectible” in town. (Uh… in village?) There’s the New England edition, the “Christmas in the City” edition (complete with an 50s-style “American Diner” building), and even a Charlie Brown-themed edition.
And who can overlook the series based on the beloved film A Christmas Story? Every classic scene is recreated with pieces such as “Triple Dog Dare” (depicting the scene where Flick gets his tongue stuck to the frozen pole) and “Isn’t It Beautiful?” (which shows the Old Man unveiling his prized leg-lamp).
But my favorite series of all has to be the Dickens’ Village, if only because it’s the one with which I have the most experience. No, we don’t own any pieces ourselves, but my mother-in-law has an extremely extensive collection. How extensive? Well… let me put it this way: a few years ago, my brother-in-law John actually conducted a census of the citizens.
I was first introduced to the Dickens’ Village phenomenon seventeen years ago, and I was immediately enchanted. Over the years, my wife and I have taken on more ownership over the whole “Assembling the Dickens’ Village” project, to the point that we’re now the primary city-planners. (This has earned us a big round of applause from my mother-in-law’s knees.)
Each year, we try to add a different element to the village: this year, we inserted a Christmas tree farm, while in years past, we’ve included a hedge maze, a waterfall, and a town green complete with a stage. (The theater company was actually putting on a scene from “A Christmas Carol,” which we thought was a nice “meta” touch.)
Over the past two years, my wife and I have recruited our twin sons to help assemble the town, and they also got the bug. I guess you could say we’re all “Village People.” (Can you tell I have been waiting this whole post to make that joke?)
Now what does any of this have to do with this blog? Simple: the Dickens’ Village both requires and inspires storytelling.
Over the past seventeen years, I’ve come to appreciate the link between city-planning and story-telling. Often, a story—or at least, a kernel of a story—can dictate the placement of the key pieces. So, in the past, we’ve created a “rich side of town” vs. “poor side of town” dynamic. Or right next to the theater we put the coffeehouse, where folks can hang out right after they watched the show.
The placement of Scrooge’s house tells a different story. Do you place it in isolation, which he would undoubtedly prefer, or do you place it in the middle of everything, which would drive poor Ebenezer crazy? (Sometimes, we even put some carolers right in front of his door. Oh, he loves that!)
But then there are a multitude of other stories that can’t be mapped out, stories that happen organically, by the chance placement of, say, a paperboy by a constable in front of a bakery. Maybe that’s the start of a new Christmas classic, waiting to be told.
Just recently, a student was telling me about J. R. R. Tolkein and how he created this fascinating world of Middle-Earth and then tried to figure out a story that he could tell in that world. The Dickens’ Village is the same sort of thing… only not so much Gollum.
The pieces in the Dickens’ Village, while beautiful and ornate, are essentially dead-as-doornails. The stories bring the village to life.
And here are some pictures of the 2012 Dickens Village…