Every day is Christmas for collectors of Department 56 iconic villages populated with Victorian-style churches, warm, cozy cottages, animated windmills and detailed homes reminiscent of everyone’s most poignant childhood memories.
Brandon Taylor of Little Rock, Arkansas, has been amassing Department 56 collectibles for the past 30 years. He has some 700 pieces and displays his favorite houses and accessories throughout his home.
“I’m busy right now remaking my North Pole spread by constructing a larger venue for it,’’ said Taylor. One of his favorite home displays is the popular Christmas in the City display, which he showcases in old steamer trunks.
Even Taylor’s 9-year-old daughter, Emma, is fascinated with the Department 56 collectibles. Although many ardent collectors remain aging baby boomers, Taylor said the clubs are seeing a wider audience for the intricately decorated Department 56 villages. And Taylor should know. He works at All Thru the House in Little Rock, a specialty store featuring Department 56 villages and accessories.
“I think my collecting is both a blessing and a curse,” Taylor said. “I’m pretty much consumed by it all but I’ve made some wonderful friends and it’s so much fun having open houses at the holidays to show other club members how I’ve displayed my villages.’’
“There are 70 Department 56 clubs nationwide with active and engaging members of all ages and from all walks of life,’’ said Sue Chretien, president of the National Council of 56 Clubs (NCC), a group dedicated to promoting, cultivating and facilitating the exchange of information between clubs.
Depending on the age and condition of retired Department 56 pieces, they can range in price from $40 for a single piece to more than $800 for the Empire State Building and $650 for the old Norman Church.
Chretien’s most prized possession is the Old Royal Observatory, repainted with platinum/silver and given to her for co-chairing the NCC’s 25th anniversary. She also adores her Christmas Carol collection that evokes warm thoughts of her youth.
Over 30 years ago, Department 56 began as part of Bachman’s, a premier retail florist in Minneapolis, Minn.
Melinda Seegers, a 30-year employee of Department 56, explained that Bachman’s used a numbering system to identify each of its departments. And she noted that the number assigned to wholesale gift imports was 56.
Now headquartered in Eden Prairie, Minn., Department 56 has become a leader in giftware, collectibles, and holiday decorating industry best known for hand-crafted lighted villages, snowbabies figurines and extensive lines of holiday and home decorative products.
Collectors say that part of the collecting magic is finding the space and generating the creativity to showcase their beloved collections.
Nancy Mattson of New York began her Department 56 adventure in 1987 with the Dickens Village, which she displays all year long. “I’d love to get the Empire State Building for my collection since I’m a New Yorker, but it is really expensive,’’ she said.
Still, Mattson has fun with her collection and so does her cat, Lacey, who can often be seen perching on Mattson’s Department 56 Halloween carousel. Department 56 creates villages and accessories for Halloween, too, a holiday growing in popularity with millennials and that had an economic impact in 2019 of $8.8 billion.
Maddie Pimenta, a retired nurse, began collecting in 1994 and keeps all her displays in a bookcase and on the mantle. “Since I live in Massachusetts, I opted to collect the New England Village,’’ said Pimenta.
Collectors say they get to travel to conferences and meet fascinating peers while building their collections. Laura Gerth of Waynesburg, Pa. said she traveled to Alaska in 2017 to claim her grandmother’s Alpine Village Collection.
“I hope to add the new Christmas Market Holiday Bread Booth to my collection,’’ Gerth said. That booth costs $75.
Some collectors find many of their most prized Department 56 pieces by attending the NCC conferences. The 2020 NCC convention is in Jacksonville, Fla., where members will get to meet village designers and hear lectures about how to display the villages.
Seegers, a Department 56 liaison with the NCC, said some of the most popular villages are those featuring the work of the late Norman Rockwell and the movie, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. And for the Harry Potter fans, there is even a Hagrid Hut and Hogwarts Express.
“People collect for a variety of reasons, from historic nostalgia to the fun of recreating childhood memories,” said Marty Shore, a retired teacher from Cleveland, Ohio, who finds most of his villages online. “I’m disabled and find it easier to scroll the web for my collection,’’ Shore said. He just spent $50 to purchase the Snow Village’s New Hope Church.
Other Department 56 fans say collecting is a way of life.
“I don’t know what I would do with all my spare time now that I’m retired, if I did not have my Department 56 villages to set up for the holidays,’’ said Linda Cribbs, a retired librarian from Washington, Pa. “Sometimes it takes me weeks to figure out where to put my collection of 250 pieces. Half of my Dickens Village goes under the tree at Christmas and the other half lands on my dinner table as a centerpiece. Holidays without Department 56 would be very sad.’’
Featured below are two other festive displays Brandon Taylor has set up of his village collection.
Chriss Swaney is a Pittsburgh-based freelance journalist for Reuters, The New York Times, Pittsburgh Engineer and Horse World, and an avid antiques collector.