It attracts about 8,000 visitors each holiday season (some of them third-generation fans), has been running since 1950, takes about two-and-a-half months to set up, features something new every year, and is distinctly non-commercial. The “it” is the Christmas Village, an animated Santa’s workshop destination located on Quarry Road in Trumbull.
Michael Marella Jr., Bridgeport PAL’s executive director and CEO, has been involved in the project for 37 years. He likens it to the Macy’s window in Manhattan — only many times bigger and in a single room. “When people walk in, you hear a lot of ‘wow’s,’” he said. “They get so excited, especially the little ones. They don’t know which display to go to first.”
Visitors include local families, people who have moved out-of-state but make it a stop when they’re home for the holidays, special needs adults from the Kennedy Center, and seniors arriving by the busload.
This year, they’ll be greeted outside by reindeer and a display of Santa sleeping, with Mrs. Claus trying to wake him. Once inside, they’ll walk through a new room that looks like a house. On the other side will be a Candy Land-like display, and then other areas such as elves building a snowman, Santa’s Workshop with elves making toys, a nine-foot tree with a Toy Story theme, Santa’s bake shop, Santa’s library, and more. Every inch of space is decorated with care. Even the loft features six-foot singing bears. In the hallway on the path to meet Santa, families pass through a miniature Christmas village display with a running train. And finally, the young and young at heart can meet the jolly ho-ho-holiday man himself, Santa Claus.
In the months leading up to the grand opening, which this year will launch with the second annual holiday parade, Marella is on daily construction detail, typically with one volunteer assistant and extra help on weekends. Another volunteer manages the tree decorating. There’s a marathon wrapping session of 3,000 gifts for the kids on one evening.
The coveted Santa role is covered by five carefully selected volunteers. “I try to make sure the Santa’s are all on the same page,” said Marella. They must know how to work with special needs visitors and how to look into parents’ eyes for a “yes, that’s the plan” or a “no, that’s a bit over the top” as their child shares a wish, so they can react appropriately.
Not surprisingly, the Christmas Village has come a long way since it originated as “Santa’s Workshop,” more than 50 years ago.
“It was just a police officers’ get-together with gift display,” Marella explained. “A few years later, they put up some portable buildings at Beardsley Park.” A permanent building was constructed, but it burned in 1982. “We reconstructed it in three days, and opened up in five. We even got a call from President Reagan,” he recalled, adding that the resurrection was referred to as a Christmas miracle. In 1995, the Christmas Village moved to its current location.
And there it will be, ready for this year’s Saturday, Dec. 1, grand opening, featuring a 12:30 holiday parade followed by a 1 p.m. Santa’s arrival. The Village will be open that first and the next day from 1 to 8 p.m. After a three-day hiatus, it’ll be open Dec. 6 to 23, 1 to 8 p.m. each day. Admission is $2 and pictures with Santa are $10, with all money going back to the Village and PAL programs.
Volunteers are welcome, with extra help needed for the opening day parade. Call 203-576-7604 for information about visiting or volunteering.
“My job is the best job,” Marella said. “You see those kids come through that door, those smiles, and people coming up to you to say ‘great job.’ It’s rewarding.”