For many centuries people have delighted in constructing miniature landscapes for Christmas. The Nativity scene, a life-sized or miniature depiction of the scene of Jesus’ birth, dates back to the thirteenth century. In the eighteenth century some central Europeans enjoyed creating miniature village scenes — called Christmas gardens—which they set up under their Christmas trees. The Moravians brought this tradition with them to America, and from it developed their own custom of Christmas putz building. The putz included a Nativity scene within a complicated town and country landscape. The idea of creating a miniature world underneath the Christmas tree soon spread beyond the German-American communities that imported it to this country. It survives to this day, though nowadays most people buy the figurines and buildings from gift shops rather than make them at home.
Christmas Gardens and Yards
In the nineteenth century many Americans placed a miniature fence around their Christmas trees (see also Christmas in Nineteenth-Century America). This fence enclosed an area sometimes referred to as a Christmas garden or Christmas yard. Inside the fenced area families arranged small figurines of people or animals, along with various toys. Magazine articles taught children how to make miniature houses out of cardboard to complement these scenes. Adults also worked on the little settlements. Home crafters created a wide variety of scenes, including vignettes of circus life, Indian villages, clusters of young people skating on frozen lakes, charming gardens, prosperous farms, and snug log cabins.
By the 1890s manufacturers supplied the public with a steady stream of ready-made miniature cardboard buildings and figures, as well as fences to mark off the magical territory of the Christmas garden. In the 1920s Germany exported large numbers of Christmas village sets to the U.S. and Canada. In the 1930s Japan added to the supply. During the 1920s and 1930s the buildings came with cellophane windows, designed to permit the consumer to illuminate them from within with an electric light bulb. While some people placed the little homes and shops below their tree, others hung them from the tree as Christmas ornaments, or filled them with candy. In the 1940s and 1950s, toy train sets became extremely popular Christmas gifts for boys. The train sets, too—with all their accessories—furthered the tradition of setting up a world in miniature beneath the tree.
In 1976 a company called Department 56 introduced a series of miniature ceramic figures and buildings that formed a set called “Snow Village.” Snow Village depicts a small Midwestern town during the Christmas season. These products became very popular in just a few years. Soon the company began to branch out, offering buyers a Dickens Village (modeled on Charles Dickens’s classic tale A Christmas Carol), Christmas in the City (based on New York City Christmas scenes), a New England Village, an Alpine Village, a Bethlehem Village, and a North Pole Village featuring Santa Claus. By 1996 Department 56 was earning $126 million a year in profits. Naturally, other companies tried to cash in on the lucrative trade in Christmas villages. Target Stores developed a Christmas Village based on the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life. Kmart came up with its own Christmas town and Mervyns of California starting selling replicas of the California missions—historic California church compounds dating back to the time when California was part of Spain and Mexico. Collecting and displaying miniature villages of this kind at Christmas time has become a popular American Christmas custom in recent decades.