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The NATIONAL CHRISTMAS CENTER Brings the Joy of the Season Year-Round

 

Do you remember your childhood Christmases? The wonder and magic of the season. The month long preparations for that blessed day of fun-filled merriment. The comforting sensation of a family basking in the warmth of genuine love for each other. A time when the waiting and anticipation of Christmas morning and what might be under the tree was just as exciting as finally tearing the wrappings off the presents. Days of baking cakes, pies and holiday treats, with all the children lending their talents at decorating the sugar cookies. The long hours of waiting for Christmas dinner as the tantalizing aromas drifted from the kitchen. The tree with all its trimmings, the carolers at your door, the roaring yule log in the fireplace… but most of all the quiet time as father read the story of the First Christmas from the leather bound family Bible, reminding each one of the true reason for Christmas joy.

The Concept

Jim Morrison, curator of the National Christmas Center in Paradise, remembers such Christmases. Jim recalls it as "a time past," a time that is not here today, but he harbors wonderful memories of the family event. Back in my day, Christmas really meant something. The stores, even the downtown went all out and decorated. You really knew it was Christmas. There really was a sense of goodwill, real or imagined. There was a different attitude about people in general, certainly at that time of year."

That is what the National Christmas Center is all about—bringing back the true spirit of Christmas, sharing it with younger generations and reviving it in those who have experienced it in earlier days. The National Christmas Center exists to perpetuate the wonder of Christmas year round.

The Creators

At the Center, life-size figures of people and animals bring Christmas stories to life. These creations were made by Ray and Mary Daub, world-renowned life cast artists. It is a process of taking molds from living subjects and "recreating" that subject in 3-D form. In the painting stage of the process, a figure can have as many as 25 layers of makeup to give the skin a very human appearance. Human prosthetic eyes also help to give the figures their realism. The closer you look at a life cast figure, the more real it looks—even down to the wrinkles and age spots! Mary is also a genius in costuming and creating puppets and animal characters.

The Daubs began creating Christmas attractions with a walk-through display at Strawbridge & Clothier in Philadelphia, entitled "Bear-a-mount," a behind the scenes look at the making of the fictional "A Beary Merry Christmas." After several years, a 3-D "Christmas Carol," complete with life cast figures, replaced the teddy bear story.

Throughout this time, Ray and Mary created similar displays for various museums and retail establishments, and then sketched out the concept for their original "TudorTowne," an animated walk-through Once-Upon-A-Time World, which opened in 1989 at the Christiana Mall in Delaware. After two years of being well-received at the mall, the Daubs determined that the aesthetics of the mall broke the mood of the village of "TudorTowne." They found a private location in Wilmington, but in order to get people to drive to this remote location, they needed to give them more. That’s where the concept of the National Christmas Center really started. Besides "TudorTowne" there was a huge train display, changing antique exhibits, Santa Claus and his workshop and a gallery of retail merchants.

"A gentleman by the name of Jim Morrison was one of our early fans," noted Ray. "He just loved ‘TudorTowne.’ It made him feel like a kid again." As the Daubs got to know Morrison, they discovered that he had always loved Christmas. Jim had been collecting items related to Christmas and researching the holiday ever since he was a young man, later establishing him as one of the most respected Christmas collectors and scholars in the world. Jim is an historian and author, and his Christmas collections are known throughout the country. (Many of the items at the National Christmas Center come from Jim’s personal collection.) "On one hand Jim is ‘Mr. Christmas,’ but on the other hand he is a little kid. He still walks through ‘TudorTowne’ with his eyes wide open!" laughed Ray.

The Location

Jim had always dreamed of a Christmas museum in Lancaster and felt "TudorTowne" should be a part and be shared with everyone year round. "I felt that Lancaster was where the center should be. The richness that enhances the holiday season came from this area, and that’s why we’re here," explained Jim. German immigrants to the Lancaster, Berks, Lehigh and York areas truly began the first Christmas celebrations and traditions in America. In fact, the first documented indoor Christmas tree was in Lancaster City in 1821, and F.W. Woolworth launched his empire selling Christmas to the local German population — half his business was at Christmas. It took four years from conception to the opening of the doors on Route 30 East in Paradise in November 1998. "It’s educational, it’s fun, it’s nostalgic, it’s respectful, it’s in some ways religious. We wanted to get all of the elements together."

The Experience

The National Christmas Center is not a Christmas shop. It is a year-round experience that begins as soon as you walk through the door, whether it’s July or December. The lobby of the Center is a treat in itself with model train displays, a crčche, a 1950’s Christmas display, and a life cast Santa welcoming you. As you start your journey through the National Christmas Center, you learn through a Victorian display, that "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!" A long hall decked for the holiday awaits you next. As you stroll through, you’ll follow the evolution of Santa Claus over the years from posters magazine covers, figurines, and even commercial advertisements. Next, step into the magical world of animals and elves in "TudorTowne." Anxious to have its own very first Christmas, the animal kingdom embarks on a quest to contact "Father Christmas." Children and adults alike will delight in the magical walk-through adventure.

Another section of the center is devoted to "A Pennsylvania Christmas," with turn-of-the-century kitchen and parlor of a Pennsylvania farmhouse, the story of Belsnickel, a turn-of-the-century candy shop, and other old-fashioned local holiday customs.

Two favorites with children are "Santa’s Workshop," populated with animated elves helping Santa prepare gifts for his Christmas Eve visits, and the huge circular train layout that even adults will find fascinating. There is also a large collection of manger scenes from around the world, highlighted by a huge Moravian Putz, showing in miniature the travels of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Finally, you yourself will travel in the footsteps of Mary and Joseph as you walk through a life-size exhibit that recreates the look and feel of the holy land more than 2000 years ago. As the gravel crunches under your feet, you are transported back to that stable in Bethlehem and an overwhelming feeling of awe overtakes the moment.

The First Christmas is the last exhibit you experience at the National Christmas Center, a reminder of the origin of the Christmas season. "We wanted to bring God and Christ back to Christmas, so The First Christmas recreation became our driving force. When times were really tough, it was this one attraction that really kept us motivated."

The National Christmas Center will never be a static attraction, and there is constant changing, updating, improving, and expanding." When we create exhibits we do them to entertain adults as well as children. We’re very detail oriented. Our standard is to strive to make it better than anything else that is out there." That goal has been achieved, and the National Christmas Center is now a world-class attraction that preserves the joy of Christmas throughout the year.

--Carla Wolfe

 

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