By Josette Keelor - email@example.com
WOODSTOCK -- Cecilaine and Steve Hecker have quite a story or two to tell every holiday season.
Their Christmas stories are not what others might expect; they often change from year to year and they are not family stories. They are the stories of the people who live in the Christmas village the Woodstock residents build in their home every fall, and they keep things interesting around the Hecker residence.
A tradition that began years ago when Mrs. Hecker lived in Texas with her family, the Christmas village grew from only a few lone houses to an entire community complete with a football stadium, a playhouse that plays only The Nutcracker and a train station with tracks leading around the downtown.
Though stores that sell collectible houses feature villages of their own by brand, the Heckers are not choosy about the houses in their village. As long as the buildings look right, they are welcome to move in, and they will be in fine company with the 102 buildings already there.
Mrs. Hecker has purchased houses from Wal-Mart, Michaels, Kohl's and The Christmas Store. Every year it's a treat to see what they will find, though in recent years they have not had to look around that much. Lately family and friends who know of their hobby have gifted houses to the couple, based on what they still need to complete the scene.
"If I know that I'm missing something," Mrs. Hecker says, she will search it out. Last year she was missing a police station, and this year she found one, she says.
The police station sits in the corporate downtown area of the village.
"Yes, and then I have a residential area and at the top I have the bars and all the inns," she says. "One section will be all the museums and the theaters."
"Somebody did give me a NASCAR Cafe last year," she says, but she still wants a race track.
"I got my hospital finally, from my mom's set."
Mrs. Hecker brought the tradition from her neighborhood in Houston, where her family and neighbors still participate in their yearly ritual of touring each other's Christmas villages, instead of caroling.
After she moved to Virginia, she began her own village, using some houses she had purchased, and some from her mother's collection.
"We actually started in 1999, with him, but I was doing it before I got together with him," she says of her husband.
"Some of them have music coming from them. The Nutcracker, that's a new one this year," she says. She turned down the music from some of the other buildings, because The Nutcracker Suite can be heard all around town.
"Then you have the fireworks sounds [over the football field,]" she says. The football field, too, has sound effects, courtesy of a football game Hecker recorded on tape.
"I would mount it under the table and hit play, and you'd hear the whole football game that I recorded on TV," he says.
Using 60-70 electric plugs under two large tables and three levels, the village takes up almost half of a room at the front of the house. The couple expects to have to branch off into the dining room within a year or two.
"My husband wants to do an airport," Mrs. Hecker says, which she jokes could help connect the two towns over the divide if the couple has to set up a sister town on the other side of the dining room.
"Everybody in Houston that we would go to their house, their whole living room was set up like that," she says. And everybody had their stories to tell, also, including her mother, who uses a pointer to indicate some of the houses or people in far reaching corners of her home.
"Which I like, so I create my own stories," Mrs. Hecker says. Her husband also has contributed stories to the village's history, though he calls his wife the main storyteller.
Police officers posted outside of the bars keep bar fights from getting out of hand, he says.
A traffic cop halts a car that sits only inches away on the snow-covered road.
Outside the church, a newly-wedded couple prepares to ride off in their appropriately decorated car.
A feeling around town suggests that if someone were to use a remote control to unpause the action, activity would pick up as usual, and visitors could watch as villagers hurried along with their Christmas purchases in celebration of the onrushing holiday.
"Normally we start in September," Mrs. Hecker says. "This year we actually started in October. ... But normally by Halloween it's done."
And once the village is up and running, it's a challenge to keep the holiday cheer from spreading to the rest of the house.
In the opposite corner of the room from the village sits a tall, thin Christmas tree that Hecker had with him in Bosnia, when he served in the Army. Now it displays ornaments just for the couple's son Brady, and features a small train circling around it. The 3-year-old also has a village of his own in his room, on a much smaller and less breakable scale.
"They light up, but there's really no interaction," Hecker says.
Still, the big village draws Brady's attention along with that of anyone else nearby.
With everything going on all at once, it's difficult to choose one aspect as a favorite, but the Heckers try.
"Mine's the stadium," says Hecker. "Right now hers is the Nutcracker."
But it's not really that easy, and his wife's attention drifts to another part of the village.
"I like the tree-lighting ceremony," she says.
"Her other piece is the church," her husband says.
Favorite or not, every piece of the village holds an attraction, offering hours of storytelling for years to come.
"We try to get at least two or three interactive houses out of six or seven," Hecker says. "And I think we're done buying the old plain houses, they've gotta have something going on with them."
The village is a lot of fun, but it is, after all, there for a reason, and the days leading up to Christmas inevitably pass.
"Santa's up on the mountain," Hecker says. The tiny character sits in a hammock and watches the children of the village.
Santa will come down off the mountain on Dec. 24.