Monday, December 20, 2010

Deck Them Halls

Christmas is great, but it's the week or two before Christmas I like best, when all the decorating, baking, plotting, and planning peak. The anticipation is the best part of Christmas, I think, though I suppose I'd be at odds with most kids, judging by how slowly my daughter thinks the week is going.

But unpacking ornaments and other decorations is at least as much fun as opening gifts and sometimes just as surprising (if you've forgotten that you owned a particular item) and rather like going through old scrapbooks and photo albums, because so many of them are imbued with memories or little stories of their own.

One of our favorite Christmas traditions is the setting-up of a little Christmas village scene. This tradition goes back to my mom's home, where my uncle used to assemble a sprawling metropolis with a downtown that clustered around the Christmas tree and spread out into the suburbs over by the fireplace and around the coffee table.

It must've been a great place to live if you were a miniature reindeer or angel--it had a mirror lake, and there weren't any kids or pets around to add weird things to the village or pluck someone randomly from the streets.

Our villagers have to settle for a high-density village atop the television and stereo cabinet. They make do with an aluminum-foil river and snowbanks made of old polystyrene packaging. The streets are lined with sixty-odd-years-old cardboard houses sprinkled with glitter.

These houses won't win any awards for energy efficiency--there's a huge hole in the back of each one for a tiny lightbulb, and the tinted plastic windows in front that once helped produce an amber hue when the house was lit were long ago punched in by the prying fingers of my older brother and I as kids. But since the best string of lights I found for them is a set of battery-operated jack-o'-lanterns no bigger than chickpeas, the little houses do shine once more with a warm, welcoming glow.

Little brushy trees dot the village, too, and at this time of year nobody can find a parking space because of all the angels marching around. (Sometimes there are herds of flocked reindeer running amok, too, but this year they've yarded up on the mantelpiece.)

Many of the angels and other small people in the village are quite old--some are probably about 80 years old, others are youngsters of 50 or so. All of them came from Germany--either from prewar times, or subsequently the East and West versions of that country. Many were made by Wendt & Kuhn, a family-owned company that started making angels and other Christmas figures back in 1915 and is still going strong today.

A lot of these figures are showing their age--they're missing paint, or wings, or even arms (not that that stops them from playing the trumpet, as my daughter pointed out as she set up one brave little marcher). More recently, a few have survived horrendous attacks on the village, catastrophes that are surely recorded in their ancient lore--attacks perpetrated by 17-pound housecats leaping up and onto their tranquil thoroughfares.

We've never actually witnessed these nightmarish scenes--we've only seen the aftermath: streets lined with fallen angels, small people and animals fallen to their deaths on the floor, lightning-bolt claw marks scraped in the tinfoil river as a cat, shocked by the sight of a village atop the cabinet, fell backward while desperately trying to gain a foothold.

Fortunately, this year the cats seem interested only in sipping water from the Christmas tree's stand and, perhaps being a bit older, wiser, and more achy, have not (yet) launched an attack on the villagers.

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