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Why Do We Build Christmas Villages?

During the holidays, it’s common to find miniature Christmas villages spread across tabletops and under Christmas trees, or clusters of Christmas miniatures arranged on mantels and bookshelves.

Whether they represent a snowy mountain town, Victorian cityscape, rustic country setting or something more eclectic, a Christmas village seems to reflect a desire to depict our image of the perfect Christmas in miniature.

A Christmas village display can be as simple as a few pieces – or a spread so elaborate it fills an entire room. Enthusiastic collectors may even incorporate figures, trees, scenery and musical and animated accessories. 

What’s behind the Christmas village craze? From cardboard cottages and whimsical gingerbread houses to charming Town Halls and mesmerizing toy store windows to scenic additions like ice skating rinks and Christmas tree lots, let’s take a closer look at the evolution of the Christmas village.

The History of the Christmas Village

The first Christmas village probably developed from the medieval tradition of creating a nativity scene. St. Francis of Assisi is credited with staging the first live nativity, gathering people and animals in a manger setting to depict the birth of Christ. Eventually, carved figures replaced living participants, crafted in sizes more appropriate for people to place in their homes.

Over time, the nativity setting grew to include other Christmas story figures like the stable animals, the three wise men, angels and shepherds. The practice of putting up a nativity scene spread throughout Europe and was adapted for regional styles and customs.

Moravians, for example, developed the tradition of building a miniature village around the manger scene. These displays could be quite elaborate, incorporating handmade buildings, figures and scenery. Moravia is known for its Putz houses, creations of paper or cardboard that depict common village structures.

Christmas Villages Grow in Popularity

Immigrants to the U.S. brought their Christmas customs to their new homes. By the late 1800s, stores like Woolworth’s were importing Putz houses and introducing them more broadly to the public. The Christmas village tradition was received as enthusiastically as the German-inspired Christmas tree and blown-glass Christmas ornaments.

When WWI interrupted the import of German products, Japanese manufacturers began producing Putz houses. They added cellophane windows and holes in the back to accommodate electric lights, ingeniously expanding the popularity of Christmas village houses.

Here Comes the Train!

Surprisingly, the invention of the electric train also may have aided the popularity of the Christmas tree village. Train sets were coveted Christmas gifts that could cost as much as a household appliance. Any lucky boy who received one wanted to play with it right away. With the tree still taking pride of place in the parlor and all the presents opened, the train track was set up in the only open space available - around the Christmas tree.

As toy train companies began introducing buildings and other accessories for their train sets, Christmas village displays became part of the scenery beneath the tree.

Thus, the Christmas tree village display focused the family’s combined interests. The nativity set represented the religious holiday. The model train captivated the children and the village captured a sense of holiday wonder and nostalgia for young and old.

The Christmas Village Reinvented

As religious participation declined over the years, so did the interest in nativity scenes and Christmas village sets. Model trains, too, grew smaller and less practical to run around a Christmas tree. 

The Christmas village tradition might have faded away completely if not for a handful of employees of a Midwestern florist shop. Enchanted by the sight of an old fashioned village all lit up for the holidays, they conceived the idea for a set of miniature ceramic lighted buildings. 

The Original Snow Village® introduced by Department 56® in 1976 wildly reignited the popularity of the Christmas village and encouraged several other manufacturers to produce Christmas village lines of their own. 

These days, Christmas village manufacturers continue to produce charming ceramic and highly detailed resin buildings and accessories in many designs and styles. Collectible Christmas village houses and accessories yearly rank among the most popular Christmas decorations.

In addition, you’ll find licensed products depicting favorite holiday movies and characters that  attract a wide spectrum of collectors. There are also Christmas village inspired lighted, animated and musical pieces that can be displayed alone or in combination with other Christmas decorations.

Setting up a Christmas village enables you to design your own Christmas story, building and changing it from year to year. Christmas is a time of merriment and wonder, and Christmas villages are a way to capture those feelings in miniature.

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