At night, the lights of Christmas Town show through the windows of Jeffrey and Sam Bryant’s house, inviting me to explore the magical place they have created within the confines of their 12-by-24-foot sunporch. Every year, a week or two before Christmas, the fishing and camping gear of summer gives way to a collection of miniature buildings, the surrounding environs, the inhabitants human and animal, all with their imagined lives and occupations.
It takes three or four days and much discussion to set up. Out come the plastic storage containers, the tons of batteries, the Super Glue and paint and paintbrushes needed for repairs and touchups.
The project has been going on for 20 years, since Sam was 8 and they found the first piece at Reliable Market, a diorama of carolers that circled and sang. Every year has to be different, with at least one new piece they would search out during the year, on-Island and off, a “little something” that would provide the impetus for a new section, or a refigured tableau. Pieces came from the thrift shop, from yard sales, from gifts, from serendipity. A note left on Jeff’s kitchen counter a few weeks ago alerted him to a collection of pieces that had just come into the Edgartown thrift shop. He and Sam went right down.
Sam is “the director,” the one with a vision, the one who says, “This doesn’t look right.” He leaves some areas to his father; the forest is Jeffrey’s section, but Sam is not above giving advice. He thinks Jeff does silly things like placing a skunk on the walk in front of a mailman, or having a black bear coming around from behind a woodland cabin. Jeff’s Reindeer School caused a great ruckus before Sam allowed it over on the side in a not-so-noticeable spot.
But the biggest disagreement is over snow. Hard to imagine it comes up every year, but both of them harbor strong opinions: the color (white, silver, or clear crystals); the consistency and placement (big pieces that make showy drifts, or the finest powder that barely dusts a rooftop or pathway). There are extra bags of snow on a shelf, all kinds, and I suspect this disagreement is an essential part of the annual setting-up of Christmas Town.
Marshall Pratt served as the electrical engineer this year, saving Jeff from the onerous job of crawling around underneath the tables and shelves and jury-rigged surfaces designed to hold the expanding collection. Everyone says that getting the lighting right is the hardest part. They found tiny new spotlights this year that have helped illuminate parts of the display, but some years they have had to equip viewers with flashlights to be able to see everything at night.
And explore one must. Hours aren’t enough. Not only is Christmas Town a sizeable place with a population rivaling that of West Tisbury; Sam figures it might be about one-fifth of a mile in scale. It is chock-full of things to look at.
But first, to set the scene. Crossing through the living room, past the Christmas tree alight and covered with generations of ornaments, the decorated mantel, French doors garlanded and strung with colored lights, you open the doors to the chilly darkness of Christmas Town. Gradually your eyes adjust and you start to notice what’s spread out in front of you.
Jeffrey’s woodland, one of the largest sections, is straight ahead, full of bottlebrush trees making a dense wilderness. There is a cabin toward the front, the one the bear is lurking behind, but it’s mostly populated by wildlife vignettes. Ducks swim on a pond. There are beavers and mountain lions, bears, wolves, hunters with shotguns, fishermen, dogs, and pheasants being flushed out of the brush.
Santa Claus and his reindeer swing with their sleigh just far enough away to avoid hitting a church steeple. The town has houses decorated with wreaths, stone walls and sidewalks, an art museum, a brewery, a firehouse, hotels, eateries, stores filled with wares of every imaginable kind, a railroad station with a train that circles through, a bride being carried by her groom into their new home, all sorts of inhabitants, all with stories to go with their vignettes.
There is a fishing village with a figure that looks like Jeff painting a boat. A figure resembling Marshall plays a guitar. Another looks like Jeff’s uncle, Danny Bryant, who is scaring a child by shaking a live lobster in his face. There are lobster traps and fishing boats, skiffs including one called The Danny, and seagulls perched atop pilings and fishing shacks. Sam says, “The population density is always increasing.”
An Amish village is new this year. Actually, it is old, a collection of ceramic houses that Jeff found at the Vineyard Haven thrift shop. A bit of farmland holds all the equipment for making maple syrup, including tiny taps and pails along the trunk of a maple tree. Ice skaters twirl across a pond. Sledders whiz down a hill. A boy lies on the ground making a snow angel. The mayor pontificates, presiding over a gathering of distinguished citizens. An artist paints at his easel high on a hillside. Children throw snowballs, shovel walkways, stand outside a gazebo awaiting the 25th annual tree lighting.
A friend, Kaya Seiman, was visiting the same day I was, and she gave me part of the tour. Kaya was an expert guide. She has been part of Christmas Town since Jeff and Sam lived across the street from her and her parents, Gina Patti and Rob Oslyn. Kaya has begun her own version of Christmas Town, arranged in a pair of bay windows along the side of her house. She says it’s only about a quarter the size of Jeff and Sam’s village, but Kaya is still young, with many years of collecting ahead of her.