We finally started decorating the house this past weekend and, by far, my favorite part was setting up the mantel village (or putz houses) that I purchased last year after Christmas. They aren't the real deal: the houses are vintage reproduction sets purchased from the quaintly loony, somewhat geriatric Vermont Country Store. (I absolutely did not pay that much for each set, though. Wait until January, when they practically give them away. Can't fool me, Yankees!)
My grandparents had a similar village of paper houses with somewhat battered, yellow cellophane windows and crooked little roofs crusted with glittery mica snow. Every Christmas that I can remember, those houses, along with a string of chunky bulbs to illuminate the windows, were put out on the fireplace mantel, nestled into fluffy, acrylic snow.
Thinking of those houses, typing this right now, I realize that I haven't celebrated a Christmas with my grandparents, in their home with the mantel full of houses, in over fifteen years. Is that possible? They never saw me marry, never held my children, never set foot in this home with the mantel of houses.
Like clockwork at this time of year, my missing the two of them becomes more acute. A little pang here and there, a vague longing for the simplicity of my youth and the expansive, nearly suffocating, warmth of a big family. The Christmas Eves spent in their home are mythic in my memory: boisterous and beautiful affairs, crowded with food, aunties, stories, shouting, laughing, presents of epic proportions.
I will admit that my acquisition of these houses is an act of pure nostalgia: reassembling physical artifacts in a futile attempt to re-create the past. I know it will never be the same. That time, house, people...they are lost to me, and that's OK. I was immeasurably blessed to have them at all.
And, on that note, here is the best part of the little paper houses:
Ellie (and even wee James who wants to be lifted up over and over to see Dat!) is delighted by them. She helped me sprinkle the whole scene with flakes of iridescent snow, touched each bottle brush tree, gently poked at the little rooftops.
Maybe, someday, she'll put the little houses on her fireplace mantel and be filled with fond, warm, mythic memories of her childhood Christmases. And perhaps, after she lovingly arranges them just so and proceeds to take fifty photographs of each house, her husband won't snicker loudly behind her back, causing her to say, "Are you laughing at me because I'm taking pictures of the houses?" to which he might reply, "No, I'm laughing at something else. But, yeah, that's really funny, too."