At the National Christmas Center, it is common to hear a grandfather whisper to a grandchild, “That’s the train I had when I was your age.” Another visitor may gasp and say something like, “We had that ornament on our tree when I was a little girl.”
“We make people happy here by taking them back to their childhoods,” says Jim Morrison, who created the Christmas museum in 1998. “It is incredible to see some of the reactions.”
Located in Paradise, Pennsylvania – known as “the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country,” the National Christmas Center is a museum that aims to educate people about Christmas from its Biblical roots through its cultural celebration.
Jim says he got the idea for the museum in the 1990s, a time he says he saw the celebration of Christmas changing. “Christmas in the malls was not the old-fashioned Christmas I remembered,” he recalls. “I wanted to preserve the memories of Christmas when I was growing up – a time when the day after Thanksgiving was a time to get ready for Christmas not this awful shopping day.”
The 20,000-square-foot museum, which has both permanent and changing displays, hosts 40,000 to 50,000 visitors each year, Jim estimates. Permanent exhibits include a recreation of a 1950s Woolworth’s five and dime store at Christmastime, an exhibit about the history of Santa Claus, a traditional Moravian putz and a walk-through journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.”
Another of the permanent exhibits is “The Art of the Nativity,” a collection of about 250 nativity sets from around the world. When asked about his favorites in the collection, Jim explains that he enjoys the way different cultures interpret the story of the first Christmas with their nativity art.
“I especially like a little one from Laos that has the Christ child in a hanging basket and the Three Wise Men bringing wild boars as gifts,” he says. He also mentions a nativity set from China that has Ming trees and an intricately carved set from Italy.
A centerpiece of the National Christmas Center is a life-sized hand carved nativity set that is about a century old. The nativity, which was originally displayed by Marshall Fields & Company, includes 22 detailed figures, including three camels that stand almost six feet in height.
“The museum just developed by itself over the years,” says Jim, who operates the museum May through early January with the help of a small staff. “We focus on family, on tradition and on history.”
He says it takes about 60 to 90 minutes to see everything in the museum, adding that “some people are in here four to five hours, reading and looking at everything.”
Admission is $12.50 for adults and $5 for children age three to 12. For more information and for a virtual tour of the museum, visit the website here.