The Doc Project·Personal Essay

How my Christmas village upstaged my life

"No matter what I publish, I fear nothing will loom as large as that village essay. I created something so much bigger than myself, something more powerful and less mortal. It all has an unfortunate Frankenstein feel."

After Richard Kemick's passion for miniatures went viral, there was no turning back

Richard Kemick wrote an essay about his Christmas Village for "The Walrus" and the outcome took everyone by surprise, except his mother. (Colin Way / The Walrus)

I started my village in grade nine, and 16 years since its founding, my tiny ceramic town has outgrown three different dining room tables.

It has spread like a tumour, full of colour and heat. "My Christmas village," I'd written in a 2015 essay for The Walrus, "— bustling with 18 buildings, more than 60 people, and countless accessories—is probably the most impressive thing I'll do with my life."

I don't think anyone expected that essay about my Christmas village to do particularly well. The Walrus' editor-in-chief at the time didn't even want to publish it. But my mother foretold a different prophecy. 

A close-up view of Richard Kemick's Christmas village, which has continued to grow since his 2015 article was published. (Submitted by Richard Kemick)

"It's going to be big," she said as I helped her decorate my parents' tree. I had recently discovered that the process was much quicker if you simply hurled the ornaments into the plastic pine and let fate decide what went where. "Big viral," she added, and I wound up for a split-finger fastball with a snow globe. 

And the piece did go big—big viral. I received emails from strangers, interviews on the local news, a National Magazine Award. "I told you so," my mother said the following week, as she heaved the turkey from the sink into the roaster. 

Seasons of change 

Four winters have passed since I wrote that essay, and a few things have changed:

Kemick has been developing his miniature village since he was 15. (Submitted by Richard Kemick)

1) To increase my village's diversity, I have nestled a Chinese restaurant between my chocolatier and community theatre.

2) Department 56 (the pre-eminent Christmas village manufacturer) has expanded its catalogue into other genres, such as Harry Potter Village, Margaritaville Village, and—may the saints save us—Hot Properties Village, which mishmashes Batman, Minecraft, and the Munsters into one municipality.

But perhaps the biggest change has to do with that aforementioned sentence; my Christmas village shall no longer be the most impressive thing I'll do with my life; now, it seems the most impressive thing I'll do with my life is write about my Christmas village.

No matter what I publish, I fear nothing will loom as large as that village essay. I created something so much bigger than myself, something more powerful and less mortal. It all has an unfortunate Frankenstein feel.

'All writing is betrayal'

I wrote the piece at the Banff Centre as part of its Literary Journalism program. Arriving there, I was terrified that my cohort wouldn't like me. They were penning stories about literati arms dealers or outlaw uncles or the line between art and propaganda in Soviet Russia. I couldn't seem to write a simple sentence without my heart dripping onto the page in a way that I considered both unprofessional and unsightly.

But against expectations, my cohort urged me to not only let my heart drip onto the page but let it slosh out entirely. When I re-read the essay, I can still conjure the exact moment of writing some of those sentences: how the sun cut between the evergreens and through my window, how the dust rose in the updraft of warmth, how the carpet's wine stain shone like blood.

"So this," I remember thinking, "is what honesty feels like."

"All writing is betrayal." I hear this mantra oft-repeated amongst writers. Personally, I think that all writing is trying not to make a mistake, but I accept the point. We betray our subjects, we betray our characters; we air their private lives, we alter their public ones. 

But the object of that mantra's betrayal extends also to those doing the writing. There are secrets we keep within ourselves not out of shame or guilt, but because they are so raw—so quiet and exquisite—that to write their names means summoning them into the hard shine of this world and watching them sallow.

I don't regret writing the essay. Not at all. But what I do regret is believing that I could heave my heart onto the page, let it writhe like a fish trying to breath, and then shove it back in without there being any difference.

A character of oneself

And then, there is that boy I wrote about in my Walrus essay—the 14-year-old who had started his own Christmas village. He's still on Facebook and has only marginally increased his security settings, so after four—closer to five—years, I re-creep his page, beginning from the date I had left off. 

At first, my primal fears were proved correct; a few Christmases ago, he filmed a walk-through of his village, which had swollen like the suburbs of my youth.

The camera quality is that of the Blair Witch Blair Project, but even through the blur, I spot the Ferris wheel, the Ford dealership, and the football field with stadium lights. There is a toboggan hill, an ice rink, a moving chairlift, and overtop it all—how did he do this?— Santa and his eight reindeer fly across their Xanadu snowscape. 

Kemick's village sprawls over three dining room tables, with countless buildings, people and accessories. (Submitted by Richard Kemick)

However, as the boy's timeline ambles on, the village does not reappear, and I exhale with relief that his ambition has festered into apathy. But then, as I scroll to his most recent photo, my stomach seizes. He's so much older now. An adult. If not for the mole beneath this nose, I'd think him a different person.

Maybe he still has the village. Maybe he just chooses to no longer show it. Maybe he realized that the only way to keep something crystal is to lock it up in the curio cabinet of the chest. Because when I now set up my village, I sometimes feel like I am playing a character of myself, and what was once an incredibly intimate and authentic experience has been tinged by the bright light of inquisition.

I have learned that honesty is the distillation of fear; that every sentence betrays a secret.-  Richard Kemick

Litia, my wife, recently took a job teaching in a tiny mountain town. Here, the hundred-year-old houses are built without fire codes or symmetry. The policeman drinks hot chocolate, the baker has rosy cheeks, and the local teenagers sell homemade wreathes at the farmers' market. Nestled between the chocolatier and community theatre is a Chinese restaurant. And the snow falls without end. 

Last weekend, during a night of polar coldness, the dog and I hiked a mountain that overlooks the town.

Over the past four winters, I've learned a lot about being a writer—sometimes by making the right move, more often by making the wrong one. I have learned that honesty is the distillation of fear; that every sentence betrays a secret but secrets long to see sunlight; and in the end, no one cares that "Frankenstein" was actually the doctor's name and his monster originally called "Monster" because creation always usurps creator.

The dog and I summited the leeward side of the mountain and my exposed hands were blown into numbness and I raised them to my eyes but could not distinguish them in the dark, and there was no longer any border between where the world inside of me stopped and the one outside began.

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About the Producer

Richard Kelly Kemick is the author of I Am Herod, a backstage and undercover look at one of the world's largest religious events. He is the recipient of two National Magazine Awards, an Alberta Literary Award, and was a Featured Artist on the Kemick refrigerator for sixteen years. He divides his time between Rossland, BC and Calgary, AB. 


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