Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/12/2018 (759 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
After her adult daughter died eight years ago following a life-long battle with a debilitating disease, Arlene Dumka didn’t have the heart to part with her daughter’s most cherished Christmas decoration, a toy carousel adorned with a red-and-white, circus-style canopy and set of brightly-painted horses.
In December 2015, Dumka, a resident at Fred Douglas Place, asked her neighbours Terry and Brian VanOutrive if they’d be interested in incorporating the piece into the elaborate, multi-level Christmas village they erect every year in the downtown block’s second floor amenities room. She invited the married couple to her suite to view the miniature merry-go-round, which they immediately fell in love with. They gave her their word they would grant it a prominent spot in their display going forward.
"During our visit we talked a bit about her daughter’s illness and how she suffered from seizures, which tugged at my heartstrings because my own son Kosty has lived with seizures since he was a little boy," Terry says, pausing to ask her husband to turn the lights of their village on to give a visitor the full effect. "Unfortunately Arlene passed away this past summer. So in her honour we’ve added a small sign next to the carousel, dedicating it to her memory."
The VanOutrives’ exhibit, the 2018 version of which stretches almost four metres in length and is populated by hundreds of pocket-size townsfolk, started off more as a Christmas hamlet than a village. In 1987, Terry was operating a home daycare business on a two-acre property in St. Andrews. For Christmas that year, one of her charges gave her an ornamental Dickensian dwelling as a gift, which she proudly mounted on a table along with a sheet of cotton batten snow for the rest of the children to enjoy.
"Over time I was given more houses which I added to the many new and used items I’d also begun purchasing," she says, maneuvering a pair of figurines stationed near the entrance of a faux-brick building marked Toy Shoppe. "The daycare children looked forward to the display immensely and were always encouraged to offer suggestions in terms of what should go where. During the Christmas season Santa would visit with presents for all the boys and girls. Afterwards they’d lead him to the village, where they’d happily point out what was different from the last time he came."
When the VanOutrives got word in September 2014 they’d be moving into Fred Douglas Place after spending five years on the waiting list, Terry wasn’t particularly anxious about floorplans or appliance options. No, her primary concern was whether the block’s management team would be amenable to letting her set up the village somewhere in the 55-plus residence, come the holidays.
"Because we’d been waiting so long, I’d pretty much given up hope about getting in here and had actually put the entire village up for sale on Kijiji, thinking we wouldn’t be able to bring it with us, wherever we ended up," she says. "Luckily I didn’t get any nibbles — probably due to the fact I was selling it as one big piece — because when the people from Fred Douglas finally got in touch with us and I was able to ask about the village, they said they’d only be too happy to give us some space on the second floor."
Start to finish, the village, which includes an old-fashioned commercial district, residential area, skating pond and ski hill takes about four days to set up. The majority of the pieces used to be battery-operated, which meant spending an inordinate amount of time turning everything on, one sleigh, reindeer or jingle bell at a time. Brian, a retired electrician, solved that conundrum a few years ago when he rewired the lot and hooked everything up to a main transformer. Now the entire village can be turned off and on with a flick of the switch, he says.
According to Terry, the village is as big a hit with the senior set as it ever was with her daycare kids.
"There’s one woman in the building who’s 102. Eleven months of the year she rarely leaves her suite. But as soon as we put the village up, she’s down here every night for an hour or so, sitting and enjoying the sights," she says. "A lot of people living here relate this to the old Eaton’s display, which many of them visited when they were kids, or took their own kids to. Winnipeg is lacking in Christmas exhibitions like this, they tell us." (Last week, after he spotted a picture of the village on Facebook, one of the children Terry used to care for, now in his 30s, posted a message, stating how seeing it brought back a flood of fond memories, adding "nobody can decorate for Christmas like Terry can.")
Every now and then, people get in touch with the VanOutrives, asking if they can bring a group by to view the display. One such tour led to an amusing exchange last December, Terry says.
"We always remind youngsters who come that the village is look-but-don’t-touch, but of course, some can’t resist playing with the cars or moving the little firemen back and forth," she says. "Last year I told one little boy — he was maybe three years old at most — to remember to put his hands behind his back and use his eyes to look. He did as he was told, but then got this little smirk on his face. Without warning he blew as hard as he could moving a bunch of snow around. I just had to smile, thinking ‘OK, he figured out how to get around that problem pretty quickly.’"
By the way, if you’re wondering if the village has ever been given a festive tag along the lines of Bedford Falls (yay) or Pottersville (boo), it hasn’t. Sure, there are tiny signposts marking various thoroughfares as VanOutrive Way, Sharon Street and Mack Avenue, the latter two named for Sharon and Ken McLennan, a pair of fellow residents who’ve pitched in the last two winters to get the village up and running. But that’s it as far as names go, Terry says.
"Maybe I’ll get around to naming it one day but for now I’m too busy tinkering. I still have a few totes full of stuff I didn’t get around to putting out this year, mostly because I simply ran out of room. The nice thing is there’s always next Christmas."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.