Finley family building a 'village'

The Robbins family of Finley never dreamed a simple gift 25 years ago would become a treasured family tradition.

In 1986, Linda Robbins' three daughters went Christmas shopping with their grandmother and brought home a Department 56 ceramic Victorian-style house from the Snow Village collection.

"That was my gift that year," Linda Robbins said. "We loved it, we still do. For years we set it up on top of the television at Christmas."

It was soon joined by another Snow Village house, and then another.

"Some were gifts, some we bought," said her husband, Ed.

They added a Hershey's factory -- "because you can't have Christmas without chocolate," Linda said. Then came the theater, several ice rinks complete with skaters, a train, a carousel and, the year they visited Nashville, a replica of the Ryman Auditorium.

After a few years, the top of the TV was maxed out and the Robbins' seasonal village scene gained a second street on the floor. Each year, the lower street became longer, and longer.

When it reached the heating duct under the window, the display had to move. That is when Ed built a plywood platform to fit into one corner of the living room.

As their Christmas village grew, so did the platform. Now it stretches about 12 feet in one direction, nearly 8 feet in the other, with a multi-tiered, triangular section between the two.

"We just kept adding one or two buildings every year. We haven't bought any in recent years -- we're running out of room," she said.

Turning to look at her husband Linda Robbins said, "At least, I hope we're not."

He just grinned.

The majority of their collection -- which they estimate numbers 300-plus pieces, including the figurines of people and animals -- is Department 56. Many of the ceramic buildings have been retired from production for years.

"I can't even begin to estimate what everything is worth, but each building averages about $80," Ed said.

Laying out the Christmas village is a labor of love. Linda begins before Thanksgiving and -- if she sticks with it -- can have everything in place in about a week.

"But I seldom do," she said.

She starts by putting out the extension cords with surge protectors, hiding them with a layer of batting to simulate snow. Then comes the fun: laying out the village.

Their collection includes two trolleys. Placing those determines where Main Street is and that determines where the businesses go, she said. The train circles through the display, chugging in and out of a tunnel. The houses are grouped along their own streets and the figurines are scattered throughout.

The farm scene goes on the lower level where the couple's grandchildren can play with the pieces. In fact, they are welcome to play with everything.

"They always have," Ed said. "We've never had anything broken so badly we couldn't glue it back together."

With the living room lights off, the Christmas village scene glows with a magical light and they often sit in the dark and just enjoy it.

"Bringing these out every year is what makes Christmas for our family," Linda said.