Monday, November 26, 2012

A Vintage Christmas

In our family we've been decorating for Christmas with homemade lawn displays since I was a kid. My Dad (holding the sheep) has created many lighted display items, cut from wood and filled with lights. My Grandpa painted scenes 40-50 years ago that still make their way from storage in the garage, to outdoors for the frigid month of December. They have held up remarkably well considering they get exposed to sub-zero temps, and battered by NW Iowa rain, sleet and snow.

You've seen a couple of our scenes in the past, but this year we decided to try something different. Every year the Christmas season approaches, and we say to ourselves, "Why didn't we work on a NEW Christmas scene for our yard?" It's just easy to put up one of our old favorites instead. This year, we were talking about an old nativity scene that my Dad and Grandpa made back in the 1960s, and it has been stored up in my Dad's cluttered garage rafters since probably 1970 or thereabout.

Thanksgiving morning, my brother Bruce and I decided to haul stuff out of the rafters and see what kind of shape the scene was in. As you can see in the photo above, some of the figures looked better than others. Mary, baby Jesus, and a couple of the shepherds were peeling extensively and needed some attention. The remaining figures were dusty, but cleaned up pretty well with a bucket of soapy water.

The 40 years these pieces spent in the rafters aged them with a "crusty chic" that can't be duplicated without the passage of time. A little stained, aged, faded and worn. Beautiful in its own way. We plugged in the string of blue lights and they worked!

Look at this star. Dad made this out of heavy upholstery cardboard, duct tape, the outer edge is plywood and the face is covered with a layer of cheesecloth to diffuse the light. I just love this thing and the beautiful brown the cheesecloth has turned.

I took the three figures home that were in need of some TLC. I sanded the loose peeling paint off them and freshened them up.

 The stable was covered with burlap. It was not in great shape either, but once again it was old and beat up and had a lot of character.

 Here is Bruce arranging and driving stakes for the figures.

And here is the finished scene, illuminated at night–complete with fresh straw all around. We were really pleased with the way it came together and my Dad was thrilled to see it up in his front yard again after all these years. If you're in Maurice this Christmas season to look at lights, make sure you head to the far Southwest corner of town to take a look for yourself. Merry Christmas.


  1. What a wonderful project! I'm so glad that you are keeping this precious tradition alive and well in your town! I taught school in a small town for ten years, and they did the most beautiful Christmas decorations in the park. In the evenings, they had people dress like Mary and Joseph and stand in the manger scene, while music played. There was also a huge Christmas tree, and we had the students make ornaments, and we walked them over during school hours (can't do that nowadays!) and they could watch the firemen put their ornaments way up on the tree. I miss those days. Please post more as the project progresses!

  2. Kristi Van Der WeideNovember 27, 2012 at 7:56 AM

    Thanks for sharing this story, John! It was heartwarming and I'm excited to see the finished project when we're in Maurice. It's always a treat when I have an update from Paintings from a Small Town!

  3. John, It is great to see you and Bruce working together to give your Dad the Joy of seeing an old piece of work enjoyed again by others. I'm sure this gives him a feeling of value to have you value the work he did so many years ago.

  4. A family lovely...thank you for sharing this creche even further than the lights you will plug in can shine!

  5. Very cool! Love the cheesecloth on the star. And, I think Mary looks kinda like Denise! :)