Sunday, December 24, 2017

seasons come, seasons go

In 1988, Jim Morrison (no, not that Jim Morrison), a life-long Christmas enthusiast, purchased a multi-piece display called "Tudor Towne" from the Christiana Mall in Delaware. Filled with lifelike, anthropomorphic animals, all decked out in Victorian era winter garb, the animated tableau takes viewers into a whimsical storybook world where chapters of the story unfold along a winding, faux cobblestone pathway. Christiana Mall was updating its holiday decor and Morrison was pleased to acquire the exhibit. He added it to his already massive Christmas collection.

Well, of course, this is the owner.
Morrison purchased a 20,000 square foot facility in the fittingly-named Paradise, in the heart of Pennsylvania's rural Lancaster County. Wedged between Bird-In-Hand and Intercourse, Paradise is a sparsely populated town of just over eleven hundred residents. Morrison filled the maze-like structure with the multitude of nostalgic, Christmas-themed items in his collection and began offering tours to the public in 1998. 

While scanning the news feed on her Facebook page, Mrs. Pincus came across a post highlighting the National Christmas Center. The brief description was intriguing and, seeing how, once again, I found myself with a surplus of unused vacation days at the end of the calendar year, my wife and I planned a road trip to Amish country on the Tuesday afternoon before Christmas. Paradise is just a bit over an hour from Philadelphia. With Mrs. P in her natural surroundings — behind the wheel of her car — we headed out, not quite knowing what to expect.

We passed a number of large farms as we snaked up Route 30. There were small pockets of commerce — strip centers with a large supermarket anchoring smaller businesses like auto parts dealers and feed stores. But mostly there was farmland. Some were made up of bare fields while others were dotted with small herds of cows, grazing in bare fields. Our GPS announced that our destination was ahead on the right and, sure enough, the friendly facade of the National Christmas center loomed large just over the crest of a hilly section of blacktop highway. We parked and noticed that for a weekday, the lot was fairly crowded. We joined several folks in a queue to purchase admission ($12.50 for adults and five dollars for kids) and soon we entered for our self-guided tour.

The National Christmas Center is a heartwarming trip through the history of Christmas, beautifully displayed, beautifully assembled, although not chronologically presented. The fifteen individual galleries are loosely themed to various aspects of Christmas. The first display is a full-scale, minutely-detailed living room, straight out of the 1950s, replete with period board games and toys, furnishings and a large tree, dripping with tinsel and appointed with fragile (fragilly?) glass ornaments and authentic bubblelights. A night-shirted adult figure stands by the fireplace while a sad-faced boy in a pink bunny costume (reminiscent of "Ralphie" from the film A Christmas Story) stares longingly at a shiny red two-wheeler. Just past this scene is a long hallway outfitted with glass-front display cases that house hundreds and hundreds of figurines - Santa Clauses, elves, angels, nymphs, snowmen — crafted from a wide variety of materials from wood and plastic to papier-mâché. A doorway opens to a splendorous depiction of Christmas around the world, including vignettes of traditions from several European and Scandinavian countries. Figures are clad in clothing and accessories  alongside unusual trees and decorations. Another room is a full-size reproduction of a Woolworth's circa 1940. Shelves are tightly stocked with wares and signage from days long in the past. Tables overflow with trinkets and displays of sewing notions, greeting cards, kitchen gadgets, glassware, toys — all frozen in time and as pristine as the day they arrived at the store. The National Christmas Center continues on with room after glorious room. There's Santa's workshop, a full-scale street of vintage shops, a three-dimensional representation of Haddon Sundblom's famous Coca-Cola Christmas advertisement. A multi-level model train set-up — positioned beneath a giant Christmas tree — delights and mesmerizes guests with its tunnels and bridges and multiple locomotives. The collection culminates in a retelling of the birth of Jesus (after all, I've been told that "he's the reason for the season") and a stroll through a realistic Bethlehem of a thousand years ago.

We were surprised by the sheer amount of stuff assembled inside this nondescript building. We were also surprised by the meticulous attention to detail each and every display boasted. This was not some thrown-together roadside tourist trap. This was a lovingly conceived and presented collection, professionally executed and very well maintained. We were among the youngest visitors that day, with the average tourist having nearly twenty years on us. We were also unique for most likely being the only ones taking the tour who never celebrated Christmas and have no fond childhood memories of anything among the Center's contents.
But, alas, this may well be the final Christmas for the National Christmas Center. The owners, Mr. Morrison and his business partner Dave Murtagh, are in their 70s and 80s respectively. They recently announced that, unless they find a buyer, the facility will close its doors forever in January 2018. Murtagh and Morrison want to sell the entire contents of the National Christmas Center to someone who will continue their passion for all things Christmas. They cringe at the prospect of closing, but shudder even more at the thought of the collection being dismantled and auctioned off piece by piece. The National Christmas Center has never made a profit, despite its steep entrance fee and droves of visitors. Murtagh suggested that the next owner could apply for non-profit status. Quite an enticement to a prospective buyer.

I'm glad I got to tour the National Christmas Center. I would recommended it to all nostalgia lovers for a fun, interesting and educational day — even if you don't celebrate Christmas. But, hurry, because time is running out.

Unless, of course, you'd like to buy it.

* * * *  UPDATE * * * *  
The National Christmas Center has closed its doors forever on January 7, 2018.


  1. What the hell?! I thought your post would be a safe place to get away from Christmas. Such a disappointment :( Oh well, I still wish you a happy New Year.

    1. I strive to be unpredictable. Happy new year to you as well.