Christmas Town 2020 - a Pandemic Project - Part 1
Building a Display Unit and a City
Every year, I set up a Christmas village, compiled from little houses left to me by my Dad, to ones I have purchased over the years. A tradition started by my Dad and one I proudly and lovingly continue.
Setting up Christmas Town signals the start of the holiday season for me. It gets me in the mood, sets my frame of mind for the coming weeks.
And every year, it is a challenge to find a suitable spot to set things up. In the past couple years, I have found myself curating my collection of Christmas houses, pulling out only a select few to set up in the space I can create in our home.
With the pandemic eliminating any work travel this year, I had more time at home and more time to tackle some projects. One such project I set for myself, with my wife's encouragement, was to create a display space for the village that would be stable, but also easy to set up and easy to take down.
We decided that a ladder-style unit was what we wanted, preferably using a real ladder. This would seriously cut down on the amount of DIY'ing I would have to do, which in turn would reduce the amount of cursing and greatly improve the odds that the unit would be level and stable. We looked at pre-made options and generally found them too small or too expensive, or both. So, we searched on Facebook Marketplace and wouldn't you know it, in minutes I found just what I wanted - an old 6-foot wooden ladder - for a ridiculously good price: $15.
When I contacted the seller, I knew this project was meant to be; apparently, he had already sold the ladder the day before, but the buyer cancelled last minute.
The ladder just fit in our car with about a foot to spare and when I got it home, I opened it up to determine shelving sizes and where it would go. I knew I wanted 5 shelves, to match the number of steps on the ladder. After more inspection and multiple remeasurements, I knew I would also have to re build the bracing on the lee side of the ladder. The existing bracing was very solid (I learned later that the main reason for this was the sheer number of nails that had been used - easily 50), but the bracing did not line up level with the ladder steps, and in some cases there was no bracing opposite a step. Now for a working ladder, this is not particularly important, but it's critical to have that bracing in the right places for a shelving unit.
Anyone who knows me also knows that my photo is nowhere near the definition of "DIY'er" in a dictionary. I am happy to pay people to do good work around the house, rather than save a few bucks for the patchjob I'm likely to do, even with my best efforts. So, this project was a little bit of a stretch goal for me.
I decided on my shelving lengths and depths and headed off to the local big box store for some basic pine shelving. Based on what was a available, I calculated I would only need four shelves (I would cut a longer one at home on my brand-spanking new circular saw). Little did I know how long I would be there, sorting - one by one - through a pile of unfinished shelves, just to find 4 were not damaged and fairly clear of defects. The quality of the shelving was terrible. I did, in fact, go through EVERY piece they had in stock just to find what I wanted.
I was also dismayed to learn the maximum depth of the "affordable" (I use that word very loosely) shelving was 9 inches; I had hoped to maximize the space I had on each rung, to help with placement of houses and depth. Rather than buy additional wood right away to add that depth (and deal with more cutting), I opted to keep things simple this first time around, using one single solid shelf for each rung. My creative options would be a bit more limited, but I wanted to be sure I liked the overall set up before investing more money and time in the project.
Using my tried-and-true, #notAHandyman method of measuring multiple times before cutting once, I managed to get the shelving and new braces cut appropriately. I even managed to attached the new braces with minimal difficulty - although two of them will need minor adjustments once the village comes down. I had some slight issues when calculating level without considering the thickness of the braces and angle of the uprights. Oh well, easy enough to fix later.
The shelves are not permanently attached, so it will be easy to take down and store when not needed.
Overall, for a first time effort, I'm quite pleased with the result.
Along with Christmas Town, this new display stand will also come in very handy in October, when Halloween Town comes to life. #spoilerAlert
Once brought inside, we quickly determined the best location space-wise was the wall in the kitchen, leading to the sunroom. This location had the added benefit of a reduced cat-climbing risk. With four cats, this is always a real concern - they pretty much jump onto and walk on anything horizontal.
I left the assembled unit empty overnight, so the cats would adjust to it, and the following day, started urban development for Christmas Town.
The Town Comes Together
For preservation purposes, most of my village houses are still in their original packaging, whenever possible. They take up more room, but there is far less damage risk. My collection ranges from houses bought at Zellers and Canadian Tire, to Department 56 and White Rose and more so these days, Michaels (Lemax). I also have a full set of Thomas Kincade houses from my Dad, designed to be illuminated with tealights (I recommend battery tealights, not open flame). I treasure those houses above all. Other than the scale of some figurines (HO scale figures for model trains are probably the most accurate, but they are not cheap!), I think overall, my village designs come out well.
Laying things out is an intuitive process for me; I don't have a specific placement plan. I start with the snow blanket and add supports to create any elevation changes. The latter was a little more challenging this years as I didn't have the depth I'm used to having, but I still managed it in the country levels.
The next step is roughly placing the houses where I think I want them, all the while planning how I am going to manage the lighting with as few plugs as possible. I also need to consider where large prop elements, like a skating pond, may be going. In the new setup, there wasn't much depth to work with, so all the buildings are pretty much in a straight line. This made the process simpler, but I also found it a little frustrating from an aesthetics perspective.
Pro Tip 1: Keep an eye on Michaels stores when they started putting the Christmas houses on sale (they go FAST) because they also typically mark down all the accessories too, like multi-light cord strings. I have three of these strings and they save a lot of headaches when it comes to lighting the houses. They typically have four bulbs per string, reducing the electrical octopus when it comes to plugging everything in.
Pro Tip 2: This year I was able to manage the lighting with a single power bar, plugged into an Alexa smart outlet. Turning things on and off just got a whole lot easier! If you don't have smart devices, be on the lookout for those foot-pedal extension cords people use for Christmas tree lights.
Pro Tip 3: If you're having trouble with misbehaving light cords, pick up some jumbo size binder clips. You can run the cords inside the clips, attach the clips to your shelves, and hide them with the snow blanket.
Adding Life and Detail
If you are just starting this tradition, or prefer to keep things simple, you can stick to some dollar store snow blankets and the houses. It will look wonderful and fill you with Christmas spirit.
But having grown up with a father who worked on model train sets (and having made a couple of my own platforms in my youth, right down to paper-maché mountains and tunnels), I know it's the little things that really bring a village to life. Props of various types: trees, people, a skating rink, a bridge or two, maybe a backdrop...
... and of course, a train.
I have two train sets (a Thomas Kincade one from my Dad and a standard HO set), two motorized trolleys and and a simple prop trolley with no motor.
A train or trolley adds that bit of animation - that life - to the static village.
I don't always have the room to set up a full oval or circle for the train, but one of my trolleys comes with specially designed tracks that allow it to auto-reverse on the track. This is great for narrow displays like bookshelves, mantels, etc. I use this trolley almost every year.
Lastly all the detail elements go in: people, snowmen, animals, trees, benches, bridges, fencing, faux lamp posts, and strings of battery operated lights.
Some detail shots of the new village set up.
Every year after I set things up, I always take a few photos and maybe a couple impromptu video clips. This year however, I was so pleased with the end result, I felt the project deserved a bit more ... production value... when documenting. So, I shot a lot more video on both my iPhone 11 Pro and my Olympus EM5 Mark III camera. While all the footage was captured handheld, I did attach my phone and camera to inexpensive camera rigs to make panning and movement a little more smooth. I also used one of my LumeCubes to add some additional light.
Below is the finished movie. If you're interested in my process of creating and editing the video, stay tuned for Part 2 in this series.
Christmas in the Country
I'll leave you with one final series - my original bookcase diorama. This scene takes up three permanent spots on the rec-room's (some call it a basement) bookcases. I've made a few changes to it over time, but it mostly stays the same. It's winter all year round in this display.
I hope you've enjoyed this project, and it inspires you to do something different, to stretch yourself creatively, or just pick up one of those projects you just never seem to get around to starting. We're all home for the pandemic, after all; you might not get an opportunity like this again.
At least, let's hope not.
Cheers and Happy Holidays!