Christmases Past, In Miniature

Durell Godfrey


For those of a certain age — perhaps 12 and up — Christmas may be more about nostalgia than the anticipation of tearing colorful wrappings off what Santa delivered amidst a long winter’s nap. Homesick, wistful, reflective, melancholy —  emotions like these are common at this time of year in those who are no longer children.

This writer recalls his childhood when the family — four of us, and then five — piled into the old Buick and motored west from Montauk to Jos. A. Hren Nurseries in East Hampton to buy the tree that, adorned with red and gold balls, white lights, and no small number of ornaments crafted at the Montauk Elementary School, would beautify our living room through the New Year.

How fitting then that children of all ages will be able to evoke the pleasure and innocence of Christmases past, thanks to Susan Warner, an East Hampton native, who has worked overtime to design an old-time winter village with ceramic buildings, figurines, landscapes, and all manner of miniatures, along with vintage electric trains for display at the old Hrens, which has been known as Groundworks @ Hrens since Groundworks Landscaping consolidated its business there last year.

Like certain overgrown children who are known as adults, Ms. Warner’s panorama outgrew her Sag Harbor house, where she used to put it up for a kids party. “Every year I tried to make it bigger and bought a few new pieces, depending on the economy and what I could get to add to it,” she said.

The collection, which now numbers 200 or 300 pieces, is mostly from the hand-crafted Snow Village series by Department 56, a Minnesota giftware, collectibles, and holiday decorating company. A few are by Mr. Christmas, and the vintage Coca-Cola O-gauge train set is a Lionel. A smaller, HO-scale set adds more movement to the lifelike scenery.

Ms. Warner’s collection is being exhibited at Groundworks for the second consecutive year. The village had begun to overtake her living room, she said, and “just got to be too much. It’s good that more people can see it here. . . whereas mine was a one-night thing. All that work for one night!”

Groundworks @ Hrens will have an open house on Dec. 6 and 7, at which the ceramic village will be humming. “I think the adults like it better than the kids,” Ms. Warner said, standing amid hundreds of Department 56 boxes on a sunny mid-November afternoon.

“The kids like to see the trains and animated stuff. But if you really take the time to look, the houses have so much detail. The adults appreciate that more than the kids do.”

For this visitor at least, the miniature village inspires more than an appreciation of detail. It reminds him of toy trains endlessly circling a stately Scotch pine, brought home from Hrens, as it illuminated the dark winter’s night many years ago.