In Providence: It takes a village

If you’re walking around Providence on a chilly December night, you might pass by a house with quite an impressive window display. While the lights on the outside won’t be that elaborate, the large front window features the pinnacle of holiday decor:

The Christmas Village.

“He was always into it, but he got really into it, I’d say, four or five years after we got married.”

They’re celebrating their 37th year of marriage, and their holidays together are now marked with the construction of a miniature city inside their living room.

“The first year, it wasn’t too bad. I think he had– If I had to guess, I’d say it was four or five houses. I like Christmas, and I liked the little houses. They were cute. My mother gave us the first two. She’s who I have to blame for all this.”

When she says “all this,” what she means is the sprawling metropolis that has now taken over the first floor of her house. 

“People think it’s just what they see, but this is his whole life. He starts working on all this in September. I had to make a rule about it, because he started doing it in the summer, and I had to tell him, ‘You need to wait until September.’ So that’s what he does now, but I can tell he wants to start sooner. He told me last year that he didn’t have time to finish the harbor with all the ships in it in time to get it on display before December. I said, ‘You can put it out next year then.’ You have to stick to your guns.”

While the village is relegated to the living room, the behind-the-scenes of it all extends into the dining room and part of the kitchen. Houses that are in need of repair. Some that need a new paint job. Elaborate inventions to help the yuletide city come to life. The rule is, whatever isn’t completed by December 1 can continue to be worked on, but it can’t go on display. It’s a little like a theatrical production. Once the lights come up on opening night, that’s it. Rehearsal is over. It’s showtime.

“He has a working elevator in one of the buildings. I forget which one, but it’s there. You can put one of the little people in it, and it goes up and down. I don’t know how he did it. I ask him to fix the light in the hallway, and he can’t do it, but ask him to put an elevator in a dollhouse, and he’ll make it work. He’s on the computer all day talking to other people like him. There’s a whole community of them out there. They trade advice and things like that. I don’t know what they talk about. I can’t listen to it, because all I think is, ‘Great. Now, he knows how to make a ferris wheel for the carnival. Things like that.”

When their grandchildren come over, they’re allowed to play with certain parts of the village, but they know other areas are off-limits. Ironically, the section featuring the school and the playground are not accessible to tots, but they can move their counterparts up and down the ski slope as they wish.

“My husband made them little doll versions of themselves. There’s no doll version of me, because I didn’t want one. I don’t want to see a little me in my own house. I wouldn’t like that at all. It’s bad enough he has a version of him that he moves around every night like the Elf on the Shelf. Every morning his little doll is in a new spot, and I tell him how much I hate it. He put a little smile on it too. I told him, ‘You never smile. Why is your doll smiling?’ He tells me not to call them ‘dolls.’ They’re something else. I forget what, but I’m supposed to call them something else, but they’re dolls. Who are we kidding?”

When I ask her why she lets him build the city every year, she tells me about their Christmas Eve tradition.

“We have the kids over, and our grandkids, and we set up the couch, and the tv, and we put on a movie, and the tree is over in the corner, and then my husband, he goes over and hits this switch, and all these lights come on in the village, but they come on one-by-one. Usually, he hits a button and–Bang. They’re on. But on Christmas Eve, he sets it up so that they do a little light show. We all sit there together, and we watch the light show, and I love that. On the couch with my kids and the grandkids, together like that. That makes me very happy. As long as he keeps doing that, he can keep making his village.”

She does have to leave the house the day after New Year’s so he can take it down.

“You ever seen a grown man cry while he’s taking down a doll town? It’s the stupidest thing you ever saw in your life. I go over to my daughter’s house while he does it. Takes him all day. I don’t need to be there for that. Part of being married for a long time is knowing when to give each other space, and when he’s putting his dolls away, he can have all the space he wants.”

If you walk by a house in Providence this Christmas Eve that has a small city in it, and a family sitting on a couch admiring it, feel free to stop and admire the lights as they twinkle and flash. One of the hallmarks of any Christmas village is that they’re always the ideal version of a place we’ve never seen in real life. That feeling you get the night before a day spent with family and good food and presents made eternal with cotton and figurines. Some might think it’s silly, and they’re not wrong, but silliness is in short supply these days, and lately, it’s come to feel quite sacred.

“He’s putting in a cathedral, he says. Not a church, but a cathedral. That’s next year. I guess I got something to look forward to.”

After all, it really is the little things.