“It’s Christmas, the angels are singing, the bells are ringing,” so goes the church cantata. Everywhere, the spirit of Christmas is evident.
As visitors wind up through a narrow driveway where lighted wreaths are glowing, they’re greeted by the sight of a stately home showing through the hillside woods. The homeowner is headed to his neighbor’s house to gift him with a leftover ham bone; this simple but thoughtful gesture a sentimental display of Christmas caring.
A well-nourished Bassett hound greets those who come to see an illuminated, snowy Christmas village carefully laid out on a 16-foot-long display.
There are churches, houses, stores, the hospital and the doctor’s office; along with many other structures, vehicles, folks going about their daily tasks with trees, mountains, roads and rivers nearby.
But there was one special structure that Cathy Swails, creator of the village, immediately pointed out: the little service station similar to the one her dad ran for many years.
The service station was the very first piece of this enchanting village she collected. Back in the summer of 1981, while her family vacationed at Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, she saw the ceramic, hand-painted station in the Callahan Gift Shop at Calabash, N.C.
It reminded her of her father, who had just passed away. She would take it home and place it on their television at Christmas. Her father, Marion Adams, owned a Gulf Station located on Highway 74 in Rockingham, N.C., a familiar route to Patrick Countians traveling to the beach.
After that, she saw more pieces of the Snow Village Dept. 56 Collection she liked. The small village moved from the television to the floor and quickly grew as her friends added pieces that were meaningful to them. Teacher friends added a schoolhouse. Her hair stylist added a beauty shop.
Soon the village needed its own space; a table was procured from a garage sale at the Patrick County Public Schools Transportation Dept.
In 1993, Swails and her husband Sonny decided to add a sunroom to their home, where they would include in it a space for the village and special electrical wiring so that all the lighted village units could be turned off and on with the flick of one switch.
Along with the room addition came two custom-made tables that allowed the 16-foot display to feature the village pieces in a methodical manner: the residential area in one location; the town hall, post office, and school in another; and yet another segment designated for recreation with a cabin, a lake, and an outdoor skating rink backed up by a pretty stone church.
Clothes drying on the line, an outdoor “johnny house,” children playing, and an overfilled garbage can are all in the village. Each piece was designed for this collection.
Dept. 56 began in 1976 when a small group of friends on a Christmas outing rounded a bend in the road and saw a small, old-fashioned village decorated with Christmas lights twinkling across a newly fallen snow.
As they enjoyed this scene, long-ago Christmas memories emerged, and soon the idea of creating such a village was formed. The original village began with six hand-painted ceramic structures. From there, many different scenes have been created and the collector’s items range in price from $5 to more than $200.
Most of Cathy’s village is made up of original Dept. 56 pieces that are no longer produced. After being on the market awhile, pieces are “retired” and new ones are created.
“I have quit collecting; I just like these older pieces that remind me of our hometown,” Cathy said.
She and Sonny came to their hometown, Stuart, when they completed their college education. He was hired as a teacher and coach, and she was hired by R.J. Reynolds Patrick County Memorial Hospital (now Pioneer Community Hospital) in Stuart to work in the laboratory department.
Their two children, Tal and Blair, attended local schools. Both children left Stuart, went away to college, and started careers and families.
Tal and his wife, Missy, a teacher at Stuart Elementary School, and their two sons, Tucker and Tanner, have returned to Stuart where Tal is able to work from home even though he is employed by a company based in Texas.
Blair and her family live in Loudon County, but they visit Stuart often with their son, Jackson, who is three years old.
Cathy explains that all three grandchildren enjoy the village and are allowed to play with it, but “they understand how precious it is and respect it.”
When Taylor, the oldest grandchild, was three, he placed a small plastic hippopotamus on the skating rink. It was somewhat out of place in its setting, but when Cathy set the village up the next year, she returned the animal to Taylor’s chosen spot.
After that, Tanner added a water buffalo to the rink, and Jackson added an elephant. All three animals are carefully put away when all the village pieces are stored in tubs for the following year.
Cathy said she can now set up the village, including the display table skirts, in a day. “It used to take three days,” she said.
She usually puts it up before Thanksgiving and Glenda Pilson, who helps with Cathy’s housework on a regular basis, really enjoys helping her set it up. It stays up until sometime in March, Cathy said, as she waits for the winter snow to cover the bushes outside the windows, which adds to the beauty of her indoor village.
Each lighted structure has its own electrical cord and plug, but thanks to friend Larry Belcher, holes have been drilled in the tabletops to allow for the cords.
“It’s too pretty and too time-consuming not to leave it up for a good while,” added Cathy.
When Christmas Eve arrives, the Swails family will gather joyfully in the sunroom where the sparkling lights of the snowy village add a special glow. Singing carols and opening gifts, they will acknowledge their blessings, many of them reflected in the village display, and bask in the thought that Jackson stated: “I want a Christmas village.”