LACONIA — "There's somebody out there who wants to do it," said Ernie Bolduc, who with his brother Armand and their friend Bob Hamel have been the mainstays of Christmas Village since the annual festival began 38 years ago. "But, finding them, I just don't know." Ernie is 80, Armand is 74 and Hamel, the baby of the bunch is 62.
"We're not getting any younger," Armand said.
In 1975, Dick Tappley, director of Parks and Recreation, inspired by the example set by his father in Bristol, overcame resistance from the City Council to inaugurate the Christmas Village. Ernie said that the village started small, but grew quickly to fill the Community Center. Black plastic covered the walls while snowflakes, strung from strands of fishing line, fell from the girders, offering the illusion of a snowy, moonlit Christmas Eve. The village began as five eight-foot by eight-foot buildings, including a castle, barn, toy shop, post office and train deport. Local merchants, along with the Police and Fire Departments, operated stalls. A creche featured a burro and sheep from the Bolduc farm, along with a live Christ child, whose conception, Ernie quipped, was timed to suit the Christmas season.
Gradually the merchants disappeared and fire regulations stiffened, which changed the shape and face of the village without diminishing its charm to young and old. "It's for all ages, not just kids," said Ernie, who estimates that between 4,500 and 5,000 people pass through the village during its four day run each year.
While for the Bolducs and Hamel the village has been a labor of love, its construction and operation also represent a significant investment of time and money. Ernie estimated that 6,000 man hours are required to set it up and take it down. They credited Fred McVey, who this year enlisted hockey players from Laconia and Gilford to haul the sets from storage, with assisting with the assembly as well as arranging the train displays.
What Armand called "the holding area," the ground floor where children gather to await their turn through the village upstairs, was painted and decorated by Sharon Cavanaugh. She also has provided face painting, games, crafts, movies and even "Santa's Jail" to entertain the children under the watchful eyes of some of the 60 or 70 elves working in the village under the supervision of Kathy McClellan. In the village itself Dave and Sylvia Detscher host "Santa's Sidewalk Cafe," featuring gallons of pink lemonade and 600 dozen cookies, brewed and baked at the direction of Patty Desrosiers.
"It's not just the construction and the set up," said Ernie. "It's the operation. It wouldn't work without these volunteers."
"It costs a good $8,000 a year," Hamel said. "$5,000 for toys alone." Ernie said that the village has enjoyed the generosity of a number of anonymous donors as well as contributions from the WLNH Children's Auction. Many of the decorations have been donated or salvaged over the years.
"We've sold Christmas trees, ornaments, candy bars and all kinds of stuff and we've reached into our own pockets more than once," noted Hamel. "And we still do," Ernie added. "It's a lot of work," he continued. "We'll have our first meeting in January and there isn't a week during the year I won't do something for Christmas Village."
"It's a lot work," Hamel agreed. "But, it's all worth when you see those kids come through the curtain and their faces light up. It brings tears to your eyes." He said that every child leaves laden with an ornament, turned from wood that Ernie rescued from the Allen-Rogers factory, a gift, personal letter from Santa, bearing the postmark "Christmas Village, Laconia N.H. 03246-1/2 . "The only thing they pay for is a color photograph with Santa for $3," he said.
"We're concerned," said Erniue. "There are no successors in the wings. The volunteers and donors are aging and dwindling. My wife told me 'you'll do it as long as you're alive,'" he continued. "And it doesn't enter my mind not to do it. But, I'm getting concerned."
The Christmas Village will be open to the public Thursday, December 5 and Friday December 6 from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m. and on Saturday, December 7 and Sunday December 8 from 2 p.m. until 5 p.m. The village will be open to senior citizen on Saturday between 10 a.m. and noon and to those with disabilities on Sunday between 10 a.m. and noon.