The History of Christmas Villages Makes Us Love The Tradition Even More

These miniature towns create a winter wonderland right in your own living room. Learn how the Christmas village tradition started—and why it's still so popular.

There's a place for elaborate prelit garlands, flameless candles, and feathery plumes protruding from Christmas trees. But, sometimes, the holiday season calls for simple, old-fashioned decorating. Think large-bulbed lights, strung popcorn, and miniature houses displayed in a window or along a mantel. It's these vintage touches that make the holidays feel homey.

We first spied Christmas villages in the 1966 edition of BH&G's Christmas Ideas book. In it, our editors suggested building a collection 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 the newest versions—like those made from ceramic and galvanized metal—you can assemble a more modern Christmas village display for your own home.

white mantel with green garland and wood christmas village
Adam Albright

When Did the Christmas Village Tradition Begin?

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 regional 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 placed large villages around the manger. They included houses made of paper or cardboard, often called Putz houses, and used mirrors to create frozen ponds. Families created 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. 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 this 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 Americans' 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 from their Christmas house display.

The Christmas Village 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. As a result, 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 the available space for an elaborate Christmas village display.

There was 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 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 sensibility to ultra-sleek white Christmas village houses.

There are also specialty buildings for nearly every interest and profession, including holiday fire stations, cafés, hotels, and hospitals. Whether you're on the hunt for wood, metal, ceramic, or historic-style paper houses, Christmas villages are a whimsical tradition that can become anything you want them to be.

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