This year, more than years' past it seems, the holidays have us feeling a bit wistful. We gave nostalgic holiday decor the No. 6 spot in our top 8 Christmas trends of 2019, and we've long loved the vintage ceramic Christmas trees that are seeing a huge resurgence. But if you have a collection of Christmas villages stashed away in Grandma's box of holiday decor, color us incredibly jealous. We first spied these magical, miniature winter wonderlands in the 1966 edition of BH&G's Christmas Ideas book. In it, our editors suggested building a village of fairy-tale houses from wood or cardboard to hang or display. Today, we still love the nostalgic feel of these tiny towns, and thanks to modern versions—like those made from ceramic and galvanized metal—we can build a set-up that matches our modern aesthetic.
When Did Christmas Villages Become Popular?
The earliest known Christmas villages weren't villages at all—they were actually small Nativity scenes. During the Renaissance, people in Italy would act out live Nativity scenes to help tell the Christmas story. Eventually, small Nativity displays were created so they could be set up for longer periods of time (and didn’t require live animals). As the practice spread throughout churches and homes in Europe, the scenes were adapted to local styles and customs. The figures started to look less like biblical figures and more like characters from the local village.
In Moravia (an area of the Czech Republic), families would create large villages around the manger. They would include houses, often called Putz houses, made of paper or cardboard and used mirrors to create frozen ponds. Families would create these elaborate displays on their own using materials found in their homes and the surrounding countryside.
Christmas Villages Come to America
The practice of setting up Nativity displays and Christmas villages came to the United States with European immigrants, but American retailers later popularized the practice across the country.
F.W. Woolworth, the father of dime stores, traveled extensively through Europe in the late 1800s and brought German cardboard Putz houses to the broader American marketplace. Americans were already in love with imported German toys and glass ornaments, so when a new German Christmas item became available, they bought them in record numbers. Many German holiday traditions (like the Christmas tree) are staples in American Christmas culture as well.
Holiday toys and trinkets from Germany became difficult to find in the years leading up to and during World War I. To keep the Christmas market fueled, Woolworth worked with Japanese manufacturers to produce American’s beloved Christmas houses. Soon the Japanese-made cardboard houses were available in every five-and-dime store and mail-order catalog in the country. Many of these houses were designed with holes in the back so families could add a strand of lights to create a gentle glow coming from their Christmas house display.
The Tradition Lives On
After World War II, sales of the classic Putz houses dwindled because Americans didn't want to support German- or Japanese-made goods. This meant that the practice of setting up a Christmas village dwindled during the 1950s and 1960s. Cultural shifts, such as the addition of the television to the living room, also reduced space available for a big Christmas village display. There a resurgence of the village trend in the 1970s and 1980s as sturdy ceramic houses came onto the scene, replacing the fragile cardboard structures. These were easier to store from year to year, and they could also be passed along as heirloom pieces to the next generation.
While large Christmas villages don’t typically dominate our homes the way they did in the early 1900s, our nostalgia for them runs deep. Today, you can find all kinds of villages online and in stores: Retailers carry everything from incredibly detailed villages with a strong Norman Rockwell vibe to ultra-sleek all-white houses. Check out a few of our editors' favorite shoppable villages to spruce up your winter scene.
There are also specialty buildings for nearly every interest and profession. Holiday fire stations, cafes, hotels, hospitals, and even casinos make outfitting your own Christmas village an adventure. Whether you’re on the hunt for wood, metal, ceramic, or the historic-style paper houses, Christmas villages are a whimsical element that can be anything you want them to be.