By Stephanie Finnegan
When many people hearken back to the 1980s, they recall flouncing about in corsets over tutus a la Madonna or streaking their feathered hair like Wham’s George Michael. However, when Phil Renninger looks back 30 years ago, he smiles for a very different, very enlightened reason: it’s when he began his love affair with Department 56.
The Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, resident recollects how one of his sons gave him “Tuttle’s Pub” for Christmas, and the whole devotion snowballed from there!
“We had never heard of Department 56 before that,” Phil admits. “Our youngest son bought it at a gift store at King of Prussia plaza, a huge mall where we did our holiday shopping in those years.” When Phil and Judy, his wife of nearly 50 years, received that first piece, they were both smitten.
“I had collected stamps for a while when I was young,” Phil explains, “and Judy collected Barbies for a bit. We both collected coins in our early years together, and now we also collect Hallmark ornaments. Judy has every ‘Frosty Friends’ but one.” So, the Renningers were the ideal duo to embrace the gift of a Department 56 building. The necessary traits—acquiring, displaying, arranging, obsessing—flowed in their blood already, and the Department 56 options helped to fuel these behaviors even more.
“Judy and I have both enjoyed watching the village grow from its infancy to the mature—but still dynamic—project that it has become,” Phil elaborates. “This display evolved with the purchase of more pieces each year and, of course, with our experience with display techniques. I was never quite satisfied with the ‘Ping Pong table’ method of display. When Department 56 Dickens created ‘Childe Pond,’ I created the skating pond, and then the stream and the ‘high bridge,’ and so on and so forth. The North Pole begat a sleigh-launching ramp. New England begat the inner harbor. And so it went. Each addition to the display platform usually takes months to create.”
There was a lull in the Renningers’ setups and showcasing: “From 2001 to 2009, we had a display hiatus. In 2002, you see, we moved to our present home, and the villages were in storage for lack of a display area.”
Loving the challenge of showing off his special buildings and hand-picked population, Phil didn’t let his accumulated accessories and characters sit idle for long. He was determined to get them out of crates and boxes, and back into a room that could handle their growing grandeur.
“In 2005, I began construction of the ‘holiday room’ in our portion of the basement. It took until 2008 to complete. The room is about 17 by 32 feet. There is a large walk-in closet for storing all the village paraphernalia. Finally, for 2009, we managed to gather all the village stuff from the basement and attic and reassemble the display. We created a new North Pole area and added the ‘Thanksgiving end.’ In 2010, we doubled the size of the North Pole and added the elf train, and added the outer harbor to the New England area. By ‘we,’ in this context, I mean my wife, Judy, my grandchildren Lauren, Ryan, and Lindsey, and good friend Tralaina, all helping out where and when they could. It took about six weeks to get it all together,” Phil reports.
When he’s not constructing an alternate world in his basement, Phil is a programmer/data analyst. Building the Department 56 towns and regions allows him the chance to flex his imaginative, literary muscles—a nice change of pace from his more factual career. When he sets up the buildings and selects the citizens to populate the landscape, he has an entire storyline in the back of his mind.
“I concentrate much more on the people than the buildings,” he reveals. “I try to place little vignettes within each village—people interacting with each other or in groups. The custom scenery provides a foundation for each village display in regard to era and location.”
In the enthusiast’s New England Village, for instance, there is a small fishing port, Phil envisions them “gathering in the inner harbor for a Christmas bazaar. At the outer docks, the folks are enjoying the evening and each other’s company. Music and dancing have spilled out of Molly O’Brien’s pub. Others have gathered in front of the coffeehouse for conversation. All the while, seagulls look on with great interest at the fishmonger and his customers.”
Phil’s flights of fancy are seen in full throttle in his North Pole displays, which boast reindeer and sleigh waiting for Santa as he concludes a last-minute check, a lit glass tree that “shimmers with silvery glitter that floats and swirls within,” as well as an elf train that is loaded with swell gifts for the nice children and lumps of coal for the naughty. His miniaturized Olde London Town is, likewise, bustling with ice skaters, vendors, and visitors filled with merry spirit. Holiday music is in abundance, and a trolley snakes its way through the streets. His tableaux are vivid and bursting with life.
From his own childhood, Phil remembers how trains played such an essential part in his family’s Christmas décor: “Trains belong under every tree. My parents had a large platform on the floor and salt was the ‘snow’ of choice in the 1950s. Trains were Lionel, of course, and the artificial tree (gasp!) was eight feet tall with real glass ornaments and bubble lights and all the stuff that made Christmas great to a ten-year-old.”
Nostalgia for his own youth and for long-forgotten civility function as a bedrock for much of his collecting and displaying. “I see much of this as a demonstration of times past when things were simple and orderly. People actually spoke to other people, face-to-face. Folks had manner and respect,” he opines. “Being older, we can recall those times ourselves. We have tried to instill those values in our three children, our seven grandchildren, and our two great-grandchildren. These values are also brought forth through the discipline and the hard work required to pull off a large display.”
Like Phil Renninger said, his ongoing Department 56 project is “mature and dynamic.” Two adjectives that describe this collector and his ebullient wife, Judy, just as well.