As I called forth my antique village from its place of sleep to appear again this Christmas, I thought of the legend of Brigadoon. True, my village appears once a year, not once every hundred years; and, yes, the houses seem to change and move around a bit (not that they can move that far on a mantel). But the essence of the Brigadoon legend is the same: a whole little world, filled with characters with their own stories to tell, materializes as if by magic, casts its spell, and then -- poof! -- is gone. Every one of us, grownup and child alike, who has practiced this act of magic waits all year to do it again.
Almost everything you see in my mantel villages is from before World War II. The cardboard houses were all made in Japan, most in the early 1930's. The little flat figures, called "zinnfiguren," are from Germany. The street lamps are -- what else? -- Lionel. The bottlebrush trees are faded and rusty but carry their age, like everything else in this miniature world, with grace and panache. It's deeply satisfying to know that through most of the last century, other dreamers arranged these very same toys to tell their own stories. May it ever be so.
A River Runs Through it
For this season's Christmas village of vintage Japanese cardboard houses, I had but one desire: to capture the sparkling magic of ice and snow. For that, I think I blame Fred Astaire in Holiday Inn ... or maybe my east European heritage ... but definitely the taunting of my friends in Florida. To me, nothing sings Christmas more than falling snow and skaters on ice. I can't make snow actually fall from the ceiling onto my mantel's cardboard village (not for very long, anyway, without having to drag out the vacuum), so I've created the next best thing: a cold, cold Christmas with drifts of snow piled high against the banks of the river that flows through this year's vintage village.
The river is frozen solid and the skating is the best it's ever been; almost everyone in town is either on the ice or watching from the sidelines. I've included some new characters in this Christmas chapter, and their stories will develop in the coming years. I should add that nearly all of the tiny tin Zinnfiguren in this year's village have been painted by me. (And I now have the crossed eyes to prove it; it's not easy painting expressions on faces that are an eighth of an inch small.) And so for all the other children besides me out there, here is this year's chapter:
USA Today bestselling novelist Antoinette Stockenberg grew up wanting to be a cowgirl and have her own horse (her great-grandfather bred horses for the carriage trade back in the old country), but the geography just didn't work out: there weren't many ranches in Chicago. Her other, more doable dream was to write books, and after stints as secretary, programmer, teacher, grad student, boatyard hand, office manager and magazine writer (in that order), she achieved that goal, writing over a dozen novels, several of them with paranormal elements. One of them is the RITA award-winning EMILY'S GHOST.
Stockenberg's books have been published in a dozen languages and are often set in quaint New England harbor towns, always with a dose of humor. She writes about complex family relationships and the fallout that old, unearthed secrets can have on them. Sometimes there's an old murder. Sometimes there's an old ghost. Sometimes once-lovers find one another after half a lifetime apart.
Her work has been compared to writers as diverse as Barbara Freethy, Nora Roberts, LaVyrle Spencer and Mary Stewart by critics and authors alike, and her novels have appeared on bestseller lists in USA Today as well as the national bookstore chains. Her website features sample chapters, numerous reviews, many photos, and an enchanting Christmas section. www.antoinettestockenberg.com
I began arranging Christmas villages on our mantel a few years ago, mostly because villages are harder to set up under a tree, and also to keep our Godzilla cats from stomping them. The fragile cardboard houses are from around 1930 pre-war Japan, and the tiny figures (tin Zinnfiguren) are mostly pre-war Germany. As satisfying as this ephemeral holiday art is to create, I found that it needed a story. I began my Christmas tale with this mantel tableau and have added characters and their stories to it every year for a decade since then.
A Parade in the Village
Each Christmas when I begin to assemble my antique village, I run into the same old problem: the mantel can only fit a dozen or so houses, and over time I have collected more than that. So every year I have to leave well-loved houses and tin figures in their storage boxes, even though Christmas should be their season to come alive. For this mantel, I've assembled fourteen of my very favorite Japanese cardboard houses, along with the cast of tin characters that people them. No Hawthorne, Lemax, or Dept. 56 houses in this village -- just an assortment of sweet, dusty, slightly tattered cardboard structures that have somehow managed to survive three quarters of a century without getting crushed and tossed. Read and enjoy!
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