Capturing the wonder of Christmas

The Dickens Christmas Village is a community-oriented project 17 years in the making. It continues to enchant children and adults today.

Anne and Fred Hails provide a tour of the Christmas village that they have built up over 17 years. The village is open until Jan. 9.

Anne Rogers was only six months into her retirement in 1998 when she decided the laid-back lifestyle wasn’t for her.

“It was a time with no commitment, no purpose,” Anne said with her husband Fred Hails by her side.

And Anne is a woman who needs a purpose.

Since coming to Canada in 1980, she had always wanted to create something special for the community. She had dreams of a community centre, but with elements of intrigue and fascination.

So that’s what she did.

It all started with the Christmas village. She and Fred came up with a unique idea for families to enjoy during the holidays. As she began to pull together and add to her collection of antique character dolls, Fred went on a mission to find a space.

As a board member on the BIA, Fred was able to rent out a few empty shops on Yale Road. The two of them spent months setting up their then 125 animated dolls into a dozen vignettes, together forming an entire Christmas village.

“Christmas, to me, doesn’t need to be overwhelming,” Anne explained. “It needs to be at a level where two-year olds could understand and relate to it.”

It was a hit. Parents would stop in with their children on a downtown shopping trip to explore the village and take a polaroid picture with Santa.

And children and adults still enjoy the Christmas village today, along with everything else at Dickens.

In the year 2000, Anne took on another retirement “hobby,” opening Dickens Old English Sweet Shop on Alexander Avenue.

They sold candies and chocolates the old fashioned way – out of nearly 100 jars, using imperial quarter-pound measure. They operated in a 150 sq. foot space that was previously Fred’s Coast Office Equipment.

It seems that they had another popular destination on their hands. They had to double the space within a month to handle the patronage. But they didn’t stop there.

Anne and Fred decided that they could do more to cherish the old days, so they brought in the village and also began to curate a British museum in the connecting space.

Building the museum in 2000 had a lot to do with the turn of the millennium.

As everyone was moving forward with excitement, Anne began to question what was really important. New technology? What about peoples’ livelihood?

So she tried to capture as much of the 20th century as she could, with the hope of educating future generations.

As she walks through Dickens rearranging pieces in a display, she’ll often witness a young child point to a typewriter or a china set and ask their accompanying grandparent, “Was this something that you used?”

Those inquisitive exchanges are exactly what she had dreamed of.

Anne and Fred have filled over 100 showcases with unique trinkets and memorabilia that they’ve collected. They continue to head out on weekend “treasure hunts” to every antique shop and thrift store in the province and beyond to track down these pieces of history.

They keep an eye out for more character dolls as well. Of their now 250 doll collection, some pieces in the village are over 100 years old.

“We have people coming from miles around to see the village,” Anne enthused. “They plan it as part of their Christmas, it’s wonderful!”

Running the village for more than 15 years now, staff will see the familiar faces of teens who have been visiting annually since they were toddlers, still remembering their favourite childhood character.

Whether it’s a family coming in to absorb the Titanic exhibit upstairs, kids who have come to play in Mrs. Beeton’s dollhouse, or coworkers who are sharing a pot of tea in the garden court, there’s always a common thread.

“It’s all part of the community feeling,” Anne said. “When people come in here, they belong.”

And entrance to Dickens will always be free.

“The community gives us so much support throughout the year, so this is the least that we can do to give back,” Anne explained.

They do, however, accept donations for the Canadian Wheelchair Foundation. Over the past three years, Dickens has raised enough donations to finance and deliver 330 wheelchairs to developing countries, providing mobility to disabled children and adults.

Anne and Fred invite all of Chilliwack and beyond to meet Santa in the village, pick out some treats from their now 450 jars in the Sweets Shop, and enrich their knowledge with a tour of the museum.

Visit Dickens Sweets and Museum at 45945 Alexander Ave or online at dickenssweets.com. Call 604-793-1981 for Santa’s schedule.

 

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