It can all start so innocently.
Some friends casually present you with one Dept. 56 house as a gift.
Thirty-five years later, you end up with more than a hundred of the popular ceramic collectibles displayed all over your home at Christmastime and your obsession has become a favorite attraction of your neighborhood’s holiday home tour.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of Rita Laird, whose home in Warsaw is one of four festive stops for Saturday’s Christmas House Walk, an event that benefits Kosciusko County’s historical society.
Laird says the relatively ordinary gray-stone ranch-style home in which she and her husband Roger have lived for about 25 years gets transformed, inside and out, for the holidays.
Roger’s avocation is woodworking, and to the outside of the house he has contributed a handmade wooden sleigh that sits on the front porch, filled with lighted presents. He also trims the eaves with icicle lights and decks the bushes, an evergreen tree and even a flagpole with lights.
When we first moved here, that was a little pine tree out front and he decorated it with lights. Now it’s huge, Rita says.
Inside, Rita showcases her admittedly huge collection of Dept. 56 houses in several rooms, including three large lighted cabinets in her living/dining area. She has dozens of items from various sets, including The North Pole and The Snow Village, which contains her first house, a Colonial given her by friends Philip and Hope White in 1977.
But, having grown up in a small country town, she says her favorite is the Christmas in the City set, with its Hollydale’s Department Store and sidewalk-lining restaurants, including Little Italy and the Russian Tea Room and the old-fashioned Coca-Cola soda fountain, complete with a replica of the brand’s trademark Santa outside.
Rita also puts out a three-piece Dept. 56 Nativity set. They didn’t do it for very long – I think maybe only one year, she says – and a rare botanical conservatory with a two-domed crystal roof in honored corners of the dining room. Then there’s the replica of Elvis’ Graceland in the basement, complete with a miniature pink Cadillac out front in the driveway.
She also puts up seven Christmas trees. I keep a nature tree up all the time, but I also do a Santa tree and a snowman tree and a Hallmark (ornaments) tree. My big tree downstairs has ornaments from all the years of our marriage. The sun porch is all done in blues and yellows, and I have a white tree out there.
In the front bedroom, Rita decorates what she calls her mom’s tree, a tree in memory of her mother, the late Katie Kirkendall of Warsaw. It’s got her hats, gloves and costume jewelry that she had as most of the ornaments, she says.
A red hat with a fishnet veil tops the tree, and on it are embroidered handkerchiefs Rita’s mother saved after her husband’s mother died. Rita recalls that her dad sent the handkerchiefs home to his mom as souvenirs from foreign countries, including the Philippines, during World War II.
Another tree, in the basement family room, is all Dept. 56 ornaments. I admit, I go a little crazy sometimes – just ask my husband, she says. But he likes it, too.
He has even accompanied her on Christmas decoration shopping trips to places such as Frankenmuth, Mich., and confesses to a special liking for the snowman tree topper, a snowman’s head with fiber optic lights that blink for eyes and change color for the mouth.
Rita, 61, says she and Roger, 62, manager at Monteith’s Best One Tire & Auto Care in Warsaw, bought their home because it had a pool and a finished basement. The couple wanted their two sons, Chad and Kevin, then a freshman in high school and a seventh-grader, respectively, to have their own house to do with what they pleased as they went through their teens, Rita says.
Both boys are now married – Chad, who lives in Greenwood, is 40 and Kevin, a Warsaw resident, is 38. And now, Rita says, each of them has a daughter to help with the decorating – Kevin and his wife Dana’s daughter, Kalli, is 4, and Chad and his wife Meighan’s little girl, Chloe, is 8.
Kalli likes playing with all the new toys’ – well, they’re toys and new to her, Rita says. Chloe loves helping, too.
But not always. I like to play, Kalli pipes up.
But that’s fine with Rita, who, not by coincidence, works in a Warsaw giftware shop. She sees holiday time as an annual oasis where grown-ups get to play with toys.
Even if they happen to be ceramic ones with roofs covered with snow.
They’re out all the time, she says of her Dept. 56 collection, but at Christmas I take some down and rearrange them. I had two big cupboards made by an Amish man, and they light up all the houses with just one switch.
In the winter, when it’s a gloomy day, it’s nice to turn them on, she adds. They’re pretty. They make you happy.