If you believe that the old-fashioned Christmas villages of holiday prints never existed outside of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Norman Rockwell calendars, and vintage Christmas cards, then surprise! You never visited the little town in Maine where I grew up in the 1960’s. In some ways, it was just like the postcards.
After my cousin gave me a Santa-size bag of tins over the 1998 holiday season, I began a Christmas tradition of arranging the village-themed ones along a length of “snow” batting on our mantel in Santiago. Pure nostalgia, that’s why I put it up every year without fail, and dream of home…
“Christmas is…a piece of one’s home that one carries in one’s heart.” –Freya Stark
On Main Street
That original collection consisted of a little red schoolhouse, a florist’s shop, a five-and-dime store, an inn, and an M&M’s post office. Over two decades, I’ve added a 2-piece train set, a wooden sleigh brimming with presents, a sled, a snowman family, two Hershey’s chocolate shops, and a jellybean stand.
Since the move to Coquimbo, we set up our little town scene in a corner window for the neighborhood to enjoy. Though we live a long way from the city’s main street, our home is located on a busy main thoroughfare. From the sidewalk, lots of people see the Christmas village, now enlarged with glittering trees, galvanized-tin houses, and an overflow of unique doll ornaments, including a Mountie nutcracker (from the Canadian Rockies), Anne (of Green Gables fame), and Barbie (on a Roman Holiday).
So many of these items, each in its special way, remind me of the little town in Maine where “I’ll be home for Christmas…”
There, old-fashioned strands of knobby colored lights zigzagged between the woolen mill and the Main Street shops—the drugstore, the auto supply, Mabel’s dry goods, Carl’s grocery. Bells tinkled, or was that the chime of the town hall clock? Peppermint and pine spiced up the fragrance of icicles and wood smoke.
During one weekend each December, my sister and I made an annual shopping trek to Bangor, where we could check off every name on our list for 99 cents apiece. And the downtown department store in the city even had an escalator!
How we prayed that the radio would announce snow days for our school district, but of course not for the final day before Christmas vacation. Nobody wanted to miss the gift exchange, not even the three new pencils in a box from the teacher. Our classroom parties always served hot chocolate with marshmallows and cupcakes crowned with boiled icing and red and green sugar crystals. To me, that taste will always be Christmas, as much as gingerbread and cinnamon.
At our local church on the hill, snowdrifts piled up outside, while gifts continued to pile beneath the sky-scraping, steeple-rivaling Christmas tree inside. In later years, the pastor acquired a giant ceramic nativity set for the platform, but I’d never give up the baggies of homemade fudge and popcorn balls.
We didn’t travel to church—or anywhere—in sleighs anymore, but in the days when we lived across from my grandparents’ farm, a brave doctor once made a house call on snowshoes—through a nor’easter—to attend a little girl with pneumonia.
“Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house,” the family gathered for the winter holidays. The same girl (klutzy as well as sickly) once inadvertently sat on a box of antique mercury-glass baubles while “helping” with the decorating. Perhaps in the spirit of Christmas, Mom and Grammie forgave me, though it’s a wonder I’m not still extracting shards.
The old farmhouse didn’t lack ornamentation anyway. Thermal-paned windows were a few years away yet, in the little town in Maine, so Jack Frost painted a fresh masterpiece on the glass every morning. The exquisite beauty almost distracted from the teeth-shattering cold as we dressed.
Down Santa Claus Lane
Then, bundled in mittens, scarves, and stocking caps, we headed out…to snow banked as high as the rural mailboxes. To roll snowmen, throw snowballs, and make snow angels. Sledding, tobogganing… and later snowmobiling.
For the two-week countdown til Christmas, we arrived home from school at dusk to watch the Santa Claus show on TV. The camera panned a snowy lane on its way to the North Pole, and I’m pretty sure it was our little town. The wish-list letters and the roll of good boys and girls usually mentioned names we recognized.
Whether or not the legend of Santa formed a part of your Christmas traditions, we believed in his example of generous giving and anticipated the joy of doing something special for others. Plus our Santa invited wonderful children’s choirs from all around the state to perform on his program. That’s how I learned all the Christmas carols.
In their classic robes, they sang a mix of sacred and secular songs, but there were plenty of references to Jesus. O Come, Let us Adore Him… You probably wouldn’t get away with that now, but just a few nights ago as I listened, eyes closed, to the Feliz Navidad concert in Coquimbo, I was transported back to those other days.
“Celebrate the childlike mind.” –Steve Jurvetson
“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…” is just that, a dream. Or perhaps a long-buried time capsule. Christmas in South America is nothing like that tin village, and then again…perhaps it’s not so far removed.
When my own daughters were small, we lived in a little town on the Big Island of Chiloé and you couldn’t even appreciate the twinkle of lights until long after the children were tucked in their beds. I still miss the 10 p.m. sunsets and the oregano-basted lamb, barbecued on a spit, between showers that paused for the Christmas picnic and resumed again by New Year’s Eve ?.
“Christmas time in the city” of Linares, and later Santiago, happened during the hottest days of the year, as well as the longest. The neighborhood kids hung out at midnight in the plaza in front of our house, trying out new games and begging my husband to pump up their bicycle tires.
Yet we still stuffed our stockings with trinkets from “home” and baked the goodies we’d cherished from childhood. The day’s highlight was still the call from family, the cards and messages from friends.
My Christmas village now is a city on a beach. My Bangor is an outdoor Christmas fair, blaring and blinking with musical lights, jammed with crowds and noise and shuffling sandals. At my North Pole, we sample fresh fruit drinks, ice cream cones, and ripe strawberries and cherries. The melons will appear in next week’s baskets.
Dripping bottles of soda and water are sold from plastic tubs of ice on the street. Breezes lift the curtains through open windows. Sunshine, though erratic on the coast, would remind my kids that “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.”
“At Christmas all roads lead home.” –Marjorie Holmes
The True Magic
So today’s tin collection features a traditional Christmas village. Not everyone can boast such a legacy or hometown. If you can, count your blessings.
Amid the hustle and bustle, my little town of tins prompts me to reflect on the “great mystery of godliness: He appeared in a body” (I Tim. 3:16). Who says there’s no magic in Christmas? It’s the greatest miracle of all time.
The Incarnation of the Son of God in flesh displays mystery and magic as real and human as blood, sweat, and tears—as mystical and divine as gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Part of being a citizen of the world is learning to feel at home wherever I am—and homesick for whatever place I’m not. And a citizen of heaven misses, longs for, her other home—always. Don’t you suppose Jesus did? He left the riches of glory (2 Cor. 8:9) for the little town of Bethlehem, which surely had its ugly side as well as its charm. Yet He came “…and made his dwelling among us” (Jn. 1:14).
A nativity set sits on my mantel now. A symbol of that little town in Israel, the village of the first Christmas—the Incarnation. It still exists, my friends. Its greatest memory both grounds and overarches history, like the little towns that live on in our hearts.
The inn in my village says, “Vacancy.” Welcome, Lord Jesus.