December 20, 2006
Under the tree
When my mother was little, she says she used to spend hours lying on the floor on her stomach, staring at the Christmas village under the tree. It was a village of delicate little houses and glittery snow. Her story gave my father the idea of building a Christmas village for our tree, using odds and ends of wood he had in the basement. The village he built was sturdy – so that kids could play with it – but also pretty. My mother painted all the little houses and bridges. I can remember setting it up with my little sister and carefully arranging the lights of the Christmas tree so that they shown into the streets. A mirror made a lovely pond, and pine cones served as trees. In those days, hardly anyone had Christmas villages – we were way ahead of our times – so it was hard to find figures of people to go in the village but eventually Christmas villages became fashionable again and you could buy little figures. And at a flea market, my mother found a lead ice skater just like the one in the Christmas village of her childhood.
I can remember neighbor kids playing with the village, and one of our extras proudly bringing us something he thought would fit in. It was a scantily clad woman with unrealistically large breasts hanging onto a lamp post, the kind of decorative statue sometimes seen in the 70s when basement bars and sexist decor were both in style. My parents graciously accepted the gift from the enthusiastic but clueless kid, and then my father got out his acrylics and painted a more modest outfit onto the woman. We also had any number of villagers that were missing arms and limbs, due to the breakable nature of the porcelain figures. The horseman on the white steed crossing the bridge was missing his head, which gave him kind of a mysterious air.
When I got married, my parents made me my own Christmas village. It was built sturdy, of course, so that kids could play with it. Because I spent a semester in London during college, my Christmas village has a British theme to it. My parents for a few years would add a piece each Christmas – Buckingham Palace, one year, Saint Paul's Cathedral the next. It's got a castle too, as well as a little tea shop modeled after my favorite tea shop in London, and the Mitre, which was my favorite pub.
My father has no use for delicate Christmas decorations that kids aren't supposed to touch, and he has always said, "Let kids play with the village. If they break anything, I'll fix it."
So that has always been the rule. When families with young kids come here and I hear the parents starting to tell their kids not to touch the village, I always jump in and say, "Oh, they are supposed to play with the village. Kids are allowed to touch whatever they want in the village." The kids always give me a grateful look and then flop down on their stomachs to move around the houses and push the train through. It can entertain them for hours.
When I look at the village the next day after having young visitors, I'll often notice strange things – like all the people lined up on the flat roof of the British museum, as if evacuating from a fire. One of my own kids used to like to put all the pine trees in one spot so that it looked like a Christmas tree lot. When Boy in Black's friends were in seventh grade, they eagerly set up the village for me, and took apart the pine trees so that they had a pile of trees and a pile of trunks. They made a little sign that said, "Trees $15, Trunks $5."
I can remember that SweetFunny Extra especially liked the broken parts of the village, particularly some of the mangled trees we'd gotten at a place that sold model trains. He would hold up a tree that still looked like a tree and say, "Here is a tree." Then he would hold up a mangled tree, all twisted and contorted: "Here is a tree on drugs."
The cats, too, have been known to wander through the village, or curl up near it. You might think this would cause the villagers to panic and run, like they always did in the Godzilla movies, but luckily, inanimate figures continue to smile and ice skate no matter what danger hovers nearby. I've come to think that the village looks peaceful with a sleepy cat in the background, nestled behind the castle or the cathedral, like a furry dragon that hovers in the mountains to protect the people from harm.
Posted by jo(e)