As the saying goes, “What goes up, must come down,” and that now applies to our wonderful Christmas exhibit here in the Carriage House at the Physick Estate in Cape May. The exhibit has filled the Carroll Gallery since the weekend before Thanksgiving and has elicited “oohs” and “ahhs” from thousands of visitors, but the time has come for it to go into hibernation for another year.
During holiday tours this year, I probably told hundreds of visitors that this exhibit was much like childbirth: extremely painful in the process but then worth it when you see how wonderful it is. Also like childbirth is the tendency to forget the pain by the time the following holiday season rolls around and we do it again! But I’m glad we do (both forget the pain and do it again) because it has become, over the past seven years, a big part of the Christmas experience for those who visit in Cape May. I sometimes look at it as having created a monster, because there is no way we can ever decide to do something else. It has become the magnet that brings people to our doors, and I couldn’t stand to disappoint them.
Just like the tree, which is the centerpiece, this exhibit has grown over the years, both in content and materials. It seems like each year there are more ornaments on the tree than the year before. There is certainly more on the walls, including our “Family Album” of old pictures of staff enjoying the Christmases of their childhood, my favorite quotes and illustrations from Dickens’ Christmas Carol, plus garland and ribbon and ornaments, oh my! This year we added something new and I guess you could say it was thanks to my cat. I had (note the past tense) a really nice (really expensive) artificial tree which I used for several years and, when not decorated, I stored it in a corner of the loft area of my second floor. Soon after being adopted, my little tuxedo cat decided to climb it and deconstruct it. It looked like it had been through a tornado, but I kept thinking I could use the branches for something, besides swatting the cat.
This year, I bundled them up and brought them in and reconstructed them into a Christmas tree shape on one of the walls. We have had something there for the last several years, shaped with green wrapping paper into the form of a tree, which we use for our donations to the Coast Guard Stocking Drive. I have to admit that this was a big improvement, and the cat has a very smug look on her face and would surely like to take credit for it.
The Dept. 56 Dickens Village pieces are a huge part of the exhibit’s attraction and those, too, are always changing and shifting, both in the number of pieces displayed and the arrangement. This year, I figured I had 137 lighted buildings (using the light sets as a gauge) and umpteen accessory pieces. While I never follow a plan in placing the houses and buildings, I do try to think like a town planner: this is the business district, over there is the harbor and wharf, the back corner is the farming community and the castles are “up on the mountain” on the second level. Rich Chiemingo’s train meanders through and, good trainman that he is, Rich usually stops in twice a day and changes the engines to keep them in top running form. We were happy to report a season with no derailments.
And so, now I’m working out our schedule for next week for the take-down. Our maintenance staff has to move all the storage bins (42 for the Dept. 56 pieces alone) back to the Carriage House, and we need to pair up each building and tiny accessory with the correct box in the correct bin. While I’m busy with the logistics of this, it’s also a bittersweet time having to dismantle this. It was so gratifying to be in the gallery and listen to the comments of the thousands of people who took so much pleasure from seeing it. If that’s not enough to make me forget the painful knees and aching back, not to mentioned the hundreds of trips up and down that ladder, I don’t know what is. Each year as we take this down makes me wonder what the future will bring. Will I still be able to do this next year? There’s no question that I will want to, so we will just have to find a way. Truth be told, I’m already thinking about things we could add to it for next year. If that’s not proof that the Christmas spirit lasts the whole year long, I don’t know what is.
So, this is it, the last weekend to come and visit if you haven’t already, or if you just need another Christmas fix to last you through the coming year. Tuesday morning, Jan. 2, it all comes down, but in the meantime, stop in. I know it’s terribly cold out, but this is truly heartwarming, so that much of you will be toasty warm.
-- Jean Barraclough is manager of publications and website at MAC