It’s a secret I tried to keep hidden from my family, friends and co-workers. I baked those cookies with icing and sprinkles that got all over the floor and decorated the Christmas tree every year. I have gone out into the freezing woods of northern Michigan and cut down a Christmas tree in the snow.
I kept up appearances for my children and made like it was all holly jolly, but my heart was never into it. As soon as those children grew up and moved away, and I retired from a place that had “Santa’s Secret Shop” every year, I bought a tiny, pre-lit tree and made plans to be on a beach for Christmas.
Then came the grandkids, the cute, adorable grandkids that I love to the North Pole and back, and I had to start celebrating Christmas again. That is the short story of how we discovered Winter Wonderland at the Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center.We were already members at the Children’s Museum of Virginia, an absolute necessity if you live anywhere around here and have children or grandchildren. It is an incredible bargain, with a 10% discount for seniors and military. The Enthusiast Pass gets four people into not just the Children’s Museum of Virginia but also the Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center, Lightship Portsmouth, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum and the Portsmouth Community Colored Library Museum.
We went to the Winter Wonderland at the Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center in the beautiful old courthouse building at the corner of Court and High Street with one or more of our grandchildren that first Christmas we moved to Hampton Roads. Then we went back and back again. We go at least three times every year. Even if you are not a member of the Portsmouth Museums, it only costs $3.00 each, free if you’re under two years old. The kids love it, but why am I, the secret Christmas Scrooge, so willing to take them over and over?
The Nostalgia Factor
Turns out I’m not a fan of Christmas as an adult, but I loved it as a child. Most of the Winter Wonderland figures came from Coleman Nursery, a Portsmouth business that put on a huge Christmas display of animatronic elves, carolers, woodland animals, penguins and a sleeping Santa each year. It was a tradition for many families to visit the Nursery. When Coleman Nursery closed in 2004, the Portsmouth Museums Foundation purchased the collection to keep the tradition alive. An army of volunteers went to work repainting faces, fixing motors and sewing new clothing for the figures so that it would be ready for Hampton Roads families to visit at the Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center the next Christmas.
Santa’s toyshop, bakery and candy factory brought back a huge wave of nostalgia, but I grew up in Detroit. I was sure I had seen some of those elves when I was little. It was called “Christmas Fantasy” and it was put on by the Ford Motor Company each year in the Ford Rotunda, the Ford visitor center that was shaped like a giant gear and designed by Albert Kahn. Those animatronic figures were all the rage in the 1960s, after the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. In this high tech age, small children, their parents and grandparents are still charmed by these little figures that twirl around on fake ice, bake Christmas cookies and saw and paint the toys for all the good little girls and boys. You (and your children) can get up close and try to figure out just how they work.
Toned Down Christmas
This Scrooge was really upset when I went into Wal-Mart the day after Halloween and the decorations were up and the Christmas music was playing. It’s always a reminder that I had better get busy and start buying and baking. The Winter Wonderland begins the day after Thanksgiving and is done on December 31. There is a lovely gift shop next door to the Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center, with many items made by local artists, so you can buy local. I would be thrilled with a Portsmouth Museum Membership pass (hint, hint), but no one will be hard selling you anything at all, except a good time with your family. Opening weekend, Friday, November 27th – Sunday, November 29th is packed with musical performances, face painting, balloons, magic, crafts and more.
There is guaranteed snow, real or otherwise, at Winter Wonderland, and at Snow Wonders. Snow Wonders will be snowing on Friday and Saturday nights right outside the Children’s Museum of Virginia. Snow and music together, free of charge. There is usually a little snow falling in the courtyard of the Arts & Cultural Center. See if you can find it while you’re looking at the outdoor displays that are tucked into the courtyard, shimmering with lights.
When you head up the stairs to begin your tour of Winter Wonderland, your kids will probably notice the train first and then there’s Santa. He’s real, not animatronic and he is super nice. Check here to see when he is in residence — and try to come when he’s not so busy. He will take time to talk to your kids and you can take some photos. Our youngest grandchild, Joe, had quite a lengthy conversation with him last year, went around the whole exhibit, and came back to talk to him about a few more things on his mind.
And There’s More
While you’re visiting Winter Wonderland at the Portsmouth Art and Cultural Center, find out more about this historic building and all the other exhibits and programs that go on throughout the year. Gayle Paul, Curator of PACC, curates eight to nine exhibits each year, including a yearly outdoor sculpture exhibit in the historic courtyard. She takes recommendations or ideas from the Portsmouth Museum Fine Arts Commission and from the community. The exhibits might focus on an artist or artists with a local connection, a historical time period or event, or cultural phenomena. The exhibits and events for 2016 will be announced this December.
Remember, parking is always free in Portsmouth on the weekends. You can take the ferry across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk to Portsmouth High Street. The Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center is just three blocks down on High Street. There are tons of good restaurants within walking distance.
I wish peace, love and joy to everyone during this season and every day. Find some of it yourself in Portsmouth.