Department 56 Collections and Sets
Christmas Village Displays
Very much the founding father of the modern-day Christmas village collections and sets that we all know and love today, Department 56 was established in 1976 as a manufacturer of a variety of holiday collectables.
This American company started in business selling a small collection of just six lit porcelain houses, known as the 'Snow Village', and is currently owned and operated by the Enesco group (an Illinois company specialising in giftware).
The Snow Village was followed soon after by the Christmas Lane collection, which quickly became the company's bestseller on the lead up to the big day in December. Gradually, a number of different collections and product lines have been introduced, including Snowbabies in 1986.
Every year, numerous pieces within each series are selected for 'retirement', to make way for new additions. Department 56 always announces the pieces that it is intending to retire well in advance, so that avid Christmas village collectors have ample time to make their purchases while the items are still for sale. There is also a strong second-hand market selling lots of these pieces on websites such as eBay.
Many of the company's porcelain houses are sold at retail outlets throughout the United States, such as department stores, drugstores, card shops and gift stores. The Department 56 website offers a convenient store locator, where you are able to search for your nearest outlet / stockist by entering your postcode (zipcode) and desired product line.
Over the years that followed its founding, Department 56 rapidly expanded its choice of porcelain houses, sets and buildings, and began to successfully introduce further themed collections. These were designed around various different themes, such as the Little Town of Bethlehem. Currently, these include:
Alpine Village Series
Known for its strong Austrian character, the Alpine Village was born in the mid-1980s as popularity in American Christmas villages began to increase, along with the demand for a greater choice.
Currently, the majority of the pieces have been retired, such as the Basel Cheese Shop, the Black Forest Tower, the Christmas House, Heidi's Grandfather's House, Hofburg Castle, the Reit Train Station, the Rhineland Wine Tavern, the Snowdrop Cottage, the Sound of Music von Trapp Villa, the Wolfstein Beer Hall and the Wolfsteiner Brewery. Remaining lighted buildings include the Ave Maria Chapel, the Goat Herder's House and the Rhineland Wine Tavern, with these being accompanied by a number of accessories.
Christmas in the City
This village collection arrived in the year of 1987 and offers something quite different to the more traditional Christmas village sets of porcelain houses. The buildings capture the charm of America in the 1930s and 1940s, and comprise a number of Art Deco style structures, such as New York's world-famous Chrysler Building - a beautifully crafted replica with tremendous detail, and quite a price tag.
Also popular is the American Diner, Atwater's Coffee House, the Deerfield Airport, the Fox Theatre, the Harley-Davidson Garage, Murphy's Irish Pub and the Soho Shops. In the mid-1990s, Department 56 chose to retire many pieces within this collection, such as the Cathedral Church of St. Mark, Hollydale's Department Store, the Music Emporium, Rachael's Candy Shop, the Red Brick Fire Station and the West Village Shops. The Empire State Building is also no longer in production, being retired at the end of 2005 and now a rather sought-after collectors' piece.
Dickens Village Series
A timeless classic and a firm favourite in many Department 56 collections is the Dickens Village series, a Christmas village inspired by the many tales of Charles Dickens, such as A Christmas Carol and other classics.
Particularly popular in this set are the Brandon Mill, Cratchit's Corner, Ebenezer Scrooge's House, the Ewart Public Library, the Joseph Edward Tea Shoppe, the London Gin Distillery, and the Scrooge and Marley Counting House. Amongst the most notable retired Dickens pieces are those relating to David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist, such as Fagin's Hideaway.
There is now also a growing collection devoted to Halloween, with popular pieces including the Clown House of Terror, the Pumpkin House and the Three Witches Cauldron Haunt. This series first made its appearance in 1998, although now more than 50 of the buildings have been retired.
Those no longer available include Castle Blackstone, the Croak-N-Haggard Mortuary, the Ghoul School, the Gravely Estate, Grimsly's House Of Oddities, the Haunted Windmill, the LaGhosti Movie Theater, the Screech Owl Farmhouse, the Witch Way Flight School and the Witch's Brew Pub.
The Original Snow Village Series
Many of the most popular of Department 56's Christmas village porcelains reside within this enchanting series. These currently include Christmas at Grandma's, the Dancing Lights House, Grandpa's Garage, the Harley-Davidson Snow Village, the Our Lady of Grace Church, Santa's Wonderland House, Shelly's Diner and the Snowman House.
Amongst the sets' main retired pieces are Christmas Carol's Cookies, the Countryside Church, Holiday Crafts, Holiday Special Toy Town Toys, the Kenwood House, the Mountain Lodge, the New School House, the Pioneer Church, the Snow Village Factory, the Spruce Place, the Thatched Cottage, Twin Peaks and the Winter Retreat, many of which left the collection as long ago as the 1980s and 1990s.
New England Series
Designing of the New England Village collection began in 1986 and took its inspiration from the style of buildings within Boston, Plymouth and other stylish New England destinations. This Department 56 collection is currently made up of a fairly small group of porcelain buildings, such as the Corwin House, the New Britain Vestry Church, the Peekytoe Crab Shack, Salem's Farm and the Tucker Point Light.
There are now many retired pieces within the New England series, such as the Chesapeake Bay Light, Christmas at Salt Bay Lighthouse, the Mountain View Cabin, the Pennsylvania Dutch Barn, the Pigeonhead Lighthouse, the Salt Bay Lobster Company, the Springfield Studio, the Susquehanna Station, the Union Oyster House and the Woodbridge Town Hall.
North Pole Series
Offering a real magical flavour with many elements capturing the excitement of Christmas Time, the North Pole series is especially appealing to children and those feeling young at heart.
This collection was first offered for sale in 1990 and is still a big-seller today. Always popular are the Jack B. Nimble Candle Shop, Nana Split's Ice Cream Parlor, the North Pole Bike Shop, the Northern Lights Depot, the Polar Plunge Warming House, Santa's Hot Cocoa Café, Snowflake's Snow Cone Shop, the Star Brite Glass Ornament Shop and the Yummy Gummy Gumdrop Factory.
Sadly, many of the classics and sets have long been retired, including the Elf Bunkhouse, the Elfin Snow Cone Works, Neenee's Dolls and Toys, Santa's Workshop and the Tin Soldier Shop, all of which were cancelled in the 1990s. The following decade saw the retiring of the Christmas Bread Bakers, the Lego Building Creation Station, the Poinsettia Palace, the Polar Palace Theater, the Polar Roller Rink, the Real Plastic Snow Factory, the Reindeer Flight School, the Reindeer Flying Feed Store, Rudolph's Misfit Headquarters, Santa's Sleigh Launch, Santa's Toy Company and the Starlight Dance Hall.
Department 56 decided to make many of these buildings as limited editions, restricted to runs of just 15,000 or 25,000 pieces, to encourage collectability. More recently, in 2012 and 2013, Mrs. Claus' Cookie Supplies, Santa's Get-Away and Santa's Helpers Training Academy have also left the North Pole series.
There are now a number of licensed sets and collections with a notable cartoon or movie theme, such as the Disney, Dr. Seuss, Grinch, Peanuts, Simpsons and the Wizard of Oz series. Each of these come with various accessories, such as snow globes and Christmas tree ornaments, while some also feature an assortment of lighted porcelain buildings.