The Iowan

Going Downtown for Christmas

Recreate the atmosphere of Christmas in the city!

By Stephen Pepin, Showcase Displays

Growing up in a suburb, it was always enjoyable to see the neighborhood houses decorated for Christmas and the kids playing outside in the snow during winter break from school with great anticipation for Christmas Eve and Christmas day.

Sometimes however, nothing beat going downtown to get in the full spirit of the holidays. Shop after shop with Christmas window scenes, impressive churches, the crowds, the traffic, all combined to create a unique atmosphere that made everyone feel like we were all celebrating together.

With the great selection of city buildings from Department 56, it isn’t very difficult to recreate this atmosphere. While I am using the Christmas in the City series buildings for this topic, the same can be accomplished to represent another era and location through the Dickens’ Village and Alpine Village series for example.

In this column, we look at some of the key design considerations and features that help convey this downtown atmosphere. The size of the display is 4 feet by 2 feet, and photo 1 shows a view of it prior to setting up the buildings and accessories.

Display Design

The key design features that I wanted to include were:
• Elevation changes
• Central feature
• Vehicles and pedestrians
• Street Lights and lighted trees

Elevation Changes

A multi-level display is typically always better than a single level, but since I want to make a realistic-looking scene, I want all levels to be connected by staircases. To minimize the consumption of space for staircases, I keep the change in levels to a maximum of 1.5 inches at the center staircase (photo 2) and just 0.5 inches for the side staircases (photo 3).

Central Feature

Cities typically lack natural features (well I guess New York’s Central Park is a really big one!), but generally have man-made architectural features. In this example, I opt for a centrally-located water feature consisting of a symmetrical-shape area fenced by stone walls, and with a staircase bridging over it at the center (photo 4).

Note that the central feature also contributes to the ability of keeping the elevation changes to a minimum, since there will be no buildings placed there and hindering the view of the buildings on the back row (photo 5).

Vehicles and Pedestrians

I like to have vehicles in my city scenes so a road makes sense, but again I want to optimize the space that I have. To achieve this, I include only a fraction of a road scene, which easily implies that a full road exists beyond the boundaries of the display (refer back to photos 1 and 5).

For the pedestrians, I include a sidewalk by the road, and ensure that there is enough of a walkway space in front of the buildings so that I get full flexibility to place figurines. For the sidewalk look, I use the tip of a hot knife to create indents in the foam for sidewalk patterns (photo 6).

Street Lights and Lighted Trees

A downtown scene without street lights, lampposts, or lighted trees just seems like it’s missing something. While these could be added at display setup time with the buildings and everything else, I have a preference for building them into the display. This way I don’t have to worry about finding ways to hide the wires during setup. Photo 7 shows the system of wires embedded into the foam before the layers are glued together. 

The wires are then hidden by the layers above it as shown on photo 8, which also shows cavities on the back of the display to store battery boxes for the accessories that do not have a detachable battery box. Once the top layer is installed, photo 9 shows the storage compartments on the rear of the display for the battery boxes.

To finish off the display, I include some glued snow accents on the top of the stone walls, the wall edges, along the curb on the street, and even in the water (put in while the simulated water material was still wet) to give it a partially-frozen look (photo 10). The bulk of the snow however is simply loose snow added after the setup.

In these photos, the display was only lightly populated; a lot more figurines, vehicles and other accessories can be placed to create the hustle and bustle of the city.

I hope this gives you some tips if you are in the mood for an urban-style Christmas this year!

If you have any comment or questions regarding this topic, please don’t hesitate to contact me at If you are in the Phoenix area, please visit Millie’s Hallmark to view some of my display creations, in addition to a great selection of Dept 56 products! 

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