NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla., Dec. 21, 2015 — It all started with a small Irish pub almost 20 years ago. That was the very first Christmas Village building Kathryn Riley-Cuglietta and her husband Jerry Cuglietta received as a gift from a dear friend. Over the next seven years, the couple added a handful more, eventually placing them all in a small window seat in the living room.
By 2008 there were 25 buildings.
Still, they all fit in the window seat, but with new dogs coming into the family and the fear that the canines might break some treasured tree ornaments, Riley-Cuglietta shifted her Christmas attentions from the Spruce to the Village.
And she hasn’t looked back since.
In between hosting tours of her now mega-village named Winterspell, Riley-Cuglietta sat down for a few moments to share some details about the metamorphosis and how Marilyn Monroe, Chinatown, a carousel, a ski lift and all the rest, come together in a truly magical winter wonderland scene.
Sheryl Kay: So who builds this village, and how do you decide what goes where?
Kathryn Riley-Cuglietta: I am the city planner. Jerry is the head of municipal utilities, which means he’s the electrician. When I first start putting it up, I always know how and where I’m going to start. Once I get about halfway through, time starts to become an issue so a lot of it just goes up with no prearranged plan. I do try really hard to make it as cohesive and sensible as possible because that’s the way I want it to look.
SK: How long did it take you to build the current village, and about how many pieces are involved today?
KRC: I start putting it up within two to three days after our annual Halloween party. However, I do start making some of the bases as early as July. Unfortunately, I don’t have a dedicated studio space and, being in Florida, the garage and back deck are just too hot most of the year, so I have to take over the kitchen counters and table.
Jerry is talking about trying to make me a studio space as an add-on to the house in the coming year because he’s tired of losing his kitchen table.
Time and space and logistics will vary from year to year because it never looks exactly the same There are 17 two-foot-by-four-foot tables holding the Styrofoam bases. Between the bases and the tables, I place two by twos and two by fours so there is a crawlspace for the cords.
There are 116 buildings this year, 147 if you count all the kiosks, carnival rides and the spaceship. There are also about 15 to 20 other pieces that aren’t up because there was no more room.
SK: Given that you both work fulltime, why on earth do you do this?
KRC: Because we love it. Jerry may whine about the loss of his kitchen table, but he really loves it, too. And I don’t think I’m misspeaking to say that a lot of people would be disappointed if we didn’t do it. I know the grandchildren certainly would be. The two oldest ones, Aiden and Alex, were a big help this year. And I do it for creative outlet. I do it because other people are so amazed and enchanted by it and it makes them happy to see it. And I do it, frankly, because it’s a break from the real world. In our town of Winterspell, we all get along. We don’t have any homeless veterans; we don’t have abused children or animals; we don’t have lonely senior citizens.
SK: Where do most of the pieces come from?
KRC: Most come off eBay sales and that really is a good source, but you have to always read the descriptions and check the shipping, and even if it’s a rare piece, it’s not the only one that’s going to come up for sale. You don’t necessarily want to jump on an item the first time you see it, even if it’s one you’ve been wanting.
With that said, it matters why you’re collecting the piece. If you just want to keep it pristine in the box and never put it up, then you probably care about the overall condition more than I do. My Department 56 Woolworth’s, for example, is typically a very expensive piece because of rarity. I got it used, and a couple of the decorations at the roofline were broken off when I got it, which I already knew from the description.
But it’s still cute, and my opinion is that older buildings in a downtown area are going to have some wear and tear, so I didn’t care about that.
SK: When does it all come down, where do you store it all, and how do you feel when it’s all packed away?
KRC: It comes down around the end of January. It has to so the house can get rearranged and cleaned up for our Oscar party. But I’m usually ready to see it go by then, although once it’s completely down, I miss it a little.
Jerry says the same thing.
If it came in its own box, it goes back in the box. if it came in a plastic clam shell, it gets wrapped in tissue paper and put into a box. The boxes go into nearly every nook and cranny of two closets. The bases and boxes of trees go into the garage.
The thing is, you know those people who make such a to-do over their outside Christmas lights and start planning their displays in January? I used to make good-natured fun of them, but I don’t anymore because in my own way, I am one of them.
I’m looking at this year’s village right now and seeing all the things I want to do differently and better next year.