Merry Kitschmas: welcome to the cult of Christmas villages

Merry Kitschmas: welcome to the cult of Christmas villages

There seems to be some uncertainty about where the word “putz” comes from. You certainly would not want to be called a putz (a Yiddish term meaning fool or jerk, among other things). All of which makes it a little unsettling that you might want to spend lots of money and many hours putting up a putz for Christmas.

This would, of course, be an entirely different kind of putz. This kind of putz comes from Pennsylvania Dutch (which, of course, is not Dutch but Deutsch or German) and it is a word meaning both “to clean” and “to decorate”.

Putzes arrived in Pennsylvania in the 18th century with the Moravians (who, of course, weren’t from Moravia but from Saxony). So, like pretty much all good Christmassy things — Christmas trees, glass baubles, Christmas markets, advent calendars, wreaths and so on — they came from Germany.

A putz is a Christmas village, a miniature landscape of illuminated houses, trains, fairground rides, Santas, elves and shops, usually set up in living rooms, basements or attics at this time of year.

The Christmas village might not be widespread in the UK yet but, like all American seasonal commercial innovations, it’s coming — and it’s big business: a multimillion-dollar pastime for collectors, fanatics, obsessives and dabblers.

The village is an enjoyable extra layer of kitsch, another way to colonise part of the home for Christmas and commerce. But the origins of these sprawling layouts stuffed with expensive accessories are modest.

The Christmas village, or ‘putz’, came from Germany but now dabblers and obsessives the world over set them up in living rooms, basements or attics
The Christmas village, or ‘putz’, came from Germany but now dabblers and obsessives the world over set them up in living rooms, basements or attics © Andrew Rowat
© Andrew Rowat

In the late 19th century, German manufacturers began producing simple cardboard buildings, houses, churches and barns in bright colours with sparkly, snowy roofs. In the US, FW Woolworth spotted the trend and started importing them in big numbers, until the first world war got in the way, tainting the appeal of all German products. The next world war didn’t help.

In the 1950s, suppliers turned to factories in Japan and Hong Kong to churn out decorative houses, adding cheap coloured lights. Then, a couple of decades later, they went to China to build more elaborate houses, made from porcelain or resin.

What started as a homemade, crafted hobby to entertain kids with basic nativity barns and figures at the base of a Christmas tree has become a commercial cult, a seemingly endless cornucopia of garish houses, figures, cars, shops and snow-frosted trees. Companies including Lemax, Department 56, Luville and Jaegerndorfer produce huge ranges of buildings and accessories to populate these diminutive landscapes.

Today “villaging” is a big thing in the US and Canada, with emerging scenes in the Netherlands, Hong Kong, the UK and elsewhere. Collectors assemble anything from small table centrepieces with a few figures to huge arrays of houses and pile them up into mountainous snowy scenes. “[At first] we were trying to set up some competition to the Christmas tree,” says Arie Vuijk, the owner and sales and marketing director of Lemax Europe. “Now some people fill their whole homes with their villages.”

Clarissa Rocco, an enthusiast from Toronto, Canada, has helped fill her parents’ basement with a set-up. “It’s a family thing,” she says. “My sister and I both live in condos and wouldn’t have the space so our village is in my parents’ house [in the city’s suburbs].

‘It’s a family thing,’ says Clarissa Rocco of Toronto, who has been helping her parents with their basement Christmas village since the 1990s; she says her father ‘would spend all his time there if he could’
‘It’s a family thing,’ says Clarissa Rocco of Toronto, who has been helping her parents with their basement Christmas village since the 1990s; she says her father ‘would spend all his time there if he could’ © Andrew Rowat

“My parents are Italian and they used to do the villages back home and then, when I was a baby, they would make little houses out of cardboard and put them under the tree.”

Today, the Rocco family village is a wide wonderland of twinkling houses, shops, a ski slope, a town square with a Christmas tree, a Ferris wheel, a casino, even a hot-air balloon. So, when did the European DIY approach give way to the more commercial version? “We started buying porcelain houses in the 1990s and as we got more we had to build a table, and another and another..”

Most of Rocco’s houses come from Lemax. “We try to buy accessories that mean something,” Rocco says. “My dad has a winery and my mom has an art gallery — she’s very artistic and paints the backgrounds. I used to practise law so I have a little law office and there’s a gelato stand which reminds us of trips to Italy when we were kids. But my favourite is a mini-Clarissa on a red carpet. I always go to the Toronto International Film Festival and that’s me, right there.”

The world of Department 56, Lemax’s competitor, is heavily branded, much of it drawing inspiration from existing franchises and Hollywood. Michelle Burke is a merchandise buyer from Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth, Michigan, which bills itself as “World’s Largest Christmas Store”.

She says their best-selling Department 56 products are part of a range that depict characters from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, one film in a 1980s series starring actor Chevy Chase as the hapless Clark Griswold.

“The movie is considered a Christmas classic and people enjoy the Griswold holiday house and Cousin Eddie’s RV village pieces,” she says. I looked them up on the website: a suburban house, a shabby camper van with fairy lights around its roof, and a garage.

What began as a craft hobby has become a commercial enterprise with a cornucopia of buildings and figures produced by companies such as Lemax, the makers of this item
What began as a craft hobby has become a commercial enterprise with a cornucopia of buildings and figures produced by companies such as Lemax, the makers of this item

In the UK, the hobby is newer. Helen Cottrill, marketing director for gift product distributor Enesco tells me their Department 56 market only took off a couple of years ago. “The bestsellers here are Disney Village, with lots of Mickey Mouse ears, and North Pole Village, which is sugary sweet with candy canes.” The biggest UK seller isn’t Christmassy at all, however — it’s Harry Potter.

It is a curious world that Lemax and Department 56 create, cutesy and nostalgic without being specific. The townscapes — and the Roccos’ is no exception — mix their periods and aesthetics, creating a strange cocktail of Victorian London, small-town mid-century US, Germanic hamlet, Disney theme park and Alpine ski resort.

There is no real hankering after fidelity as there can be with what is perhaps the Christmas village’s closest cousin, the model railway, with few worries about scale or gauge or historical or geographical inconsistencies.

This particular kind of nostalgia is generalised, made from the ingredients of remembered and mediated Christmases rather than any coherent era or place.

There are exceptions — the Thomas Kinkade Christmas Village Collection is “handcrafted and hand-painted for exceptional realism” — but in the bigger ranges, steam trains happily coexist with helicopters and Victorians peer into shop windows that look like they belong in a hokey Santa’s grotto.

I ask Vuijk about Lemax’s best-selling items. “It’s the Tannenbaum Christmas Shoppe,” he says. “I even know the number: 35845.” It’s a cartoonish amalgam of styles: part Dickensian fantasy, part antiquated German village, part Scooby Doo haunted house. The shop window is leaded with a Santa looking out. There’s a wonky chimney, half-timbering, a garden-centre balustrade and a shop sign that looks like it belongs in a period-themed retail outlet in Shanghai.

Details of the Roccos’ Christmas village
Details of the Roccos’ Christmas village © Andrew Rowat
© Andrew Rowat

These things aren’t cheap: the Shoppe costs about £25, while some of the larger mechanical accessories, such as a Ferris wheel, might cost £140. “They’re designed in America,” Vuijk says, “and manufactured in China from high-grade porcelain.”

As with Rocco’s folks, most of these set-ups are assembled in the suburbs. Partly, that’s because suburban houses have the space to fit these enormous landscapes. But it is also because what the Christmas village celebrates is precisely the density, intensity and communal life that is so often lacking in the car-centric sprawl of the suburbs: the sense of people coming together to feel Christmassy. This year, of course, that feels more acute than ever.

And once they are erected, what do people do with them? Do they stand around ooh-ing and ahh-ing or sing carols? Or does the village simply sit in the corner, like the tree that Vuijk suggests they are in competition with?

“We’d normally have friends and family come around,” Rocco says. “But doesn’t this year suck?”

Instead, Rocco has been carrying out virtual tours of their village. “But my dad just goes down to the basement where he has this huge TV and the village is there in the background,” she says. “He’d spend all his time there if he could.”

The Christmases these villages celebrate are highly commercialised. In a way, you might say that their real antecedents are not so much the amateurish scenes at the base of the Christmas tree, but shop windows and their seasonal displays — once the staple of every Christmas, with kids staring in at cornucopias of toys and candy.

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As internet shopping destroys local stores and town centres, and manufacturing has been outsourced to Asia, these miniature idealised towns allow us a degree of control in rebuilding the communities we might like to live in.

Their particular blend of nostalgia suggests a vague sense of unease, however. That cocktail of nostalgia for small-town America or Victorian London, filtered through The Muppet Christmas Carol, the nightmarish twee of Dr Seuss’s candy-cane Whoville (the Grinch being, of course, a paean against the commercialisation of Christmas) and half-remembered and hazily reproduced scenes from some of the worst movies ever made, can be unsettling.

And yet, when darkness descends and the lights begin to twinkle, who can resist it? A mist of wellbeing emanates from the snowy landscapes, a soft cashmere blanket of kitsch tinged with the thought that it could be just a little more perfect with a couple of frosty tree accessories, a figurine of cousin Eddie emptying his RV chemical toilet or another snow-capped house in that darker corner there, and each one shipped from China any moment now.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic

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