Inside Dianne McKay’s Rancho Santa Fe home, a whole world comes alive every Christmas. Her Christmas village display features about a hundred porcelain structures and nearly a thousand figurines, all inside the cheerful, snowy scene she envisions.
Lights twinkle on rooftops, a trolley makes regular stops on a short route and the curtain rises on an Opera House piece, as figurines dance different scenes to the music of “The Nutcracker.”
Skiers circle a hillside and a ski gondola ferries passengers from one snowy peak to a village scene on a shelf. Inside a carnival-themed corner, bumper cars emit tiny crashing sounds as they clunk into one another. A glittery ball even drops on a Times Square in a little Big Apple.
McKay has been building her Christmas village since her three kids were little. While these days it inhabits faux snow-covered tabletops and creeps up into the shelves of her cabinetry, she used to do the display at toddler height so the little ones could see the wonder up close.
That lasted until she found the cat curled up in the middle of town.
McKay is a physician, the medical director of transplant nephrology (kidneys) at UC San Diego, so the village construction is a good creative outlet for her every year.
“This is a nice way to relax and use a different part of my brain,” she said.
Her mother gave her the first piece, a church that looks nearly identical to one that her daughter Nora, an actress, used to sing in when she was little. Most of the items in the display are Department 56 collectibles, but McKay mixes and matches with things she’s been given over the years.
“In a weird way, it’s a little history of our family, because each piece means something to whoever got it,” McKay said. “It represents a piece of our lives.”
Her stepmother, who loves the mountains and lake houses, got her the fisherman’s nook piece, with a glossy lake in front of it. Little figurines roasting marshmallows over a tiny glowing fire by the lake are a nod to the family’s camping experiences.
A Graceland scene from her Elvis-adoring sister features the King, a pink Cadillac and a fountain with actual water. When her daughter returned from a trip to Scotland this year, she brought back a Loch Ness monster figurine that now resides playfully inside the Graceland fountain.
“I love the little pieces. Like the mailbox. Who goes to the store to buy a miniature mailbox? My quirky, beautiful, hardworking mom,” said Nora. “I love her.”
Until 2001, the family lived in Boston, so there is a whole East Coast scene, complete with ice skaters on the famous rink at New York’s Rockefeller Center, construction workers and a city manhole with tiny rats, and a lit-up Yankee Stadium.
In 2004, to tease her son, a huge Yankee fan, after their World Series loss to the Red Sox, a miniature Fenway Park was purchased and erected opposite the Yankee Stadium.
A figure of a man snowblowing a frozen driveway harks back to her husband’s task when they lived in New England. A surf shop represents a brother-in-law who makes surfboards.
Her favorite piece in the collection is the “Naughty and Nice Detective Agency,” with a circling telescope with Santa’s giant eye keeping watch.
She looks for different effects every year, this year making a lighted archway into one town scene: A truck makes its way through the snow between a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop and a pancake house, reminiscent of breakfasts with her children at The Original Pancake House outside Rancho Santa Fe.
“The Christmas village was my constant reminder that Christmas was here,” said Liam, McKay’s oldest son. “It completed the home’s Christmas feel in a way that was unique to our family.”
Constructing this massive a display is no easy task. It takes about three weeks to complete, and McKay started this year in late November, just after Thanksgiving.
Everything is managed by a handful of remote controls, linked by a keychain. Underneath the tablecloth is a complicated tangle of wiring — “an engineering nightmare.”
The layout is a little bit different each year. In the past, it’s been as many as three levels; last year, the piano was moved out and the display took up the whole room; this year, it is split into mini-nations, with the piano in the middle.
McKay uses four different types of snow, from a thin white cloth at the bottom to the fluffy stuff that goes on after all the pieces are set and then topped with a sprinkle of glittery, sparkly snow.
Her oldest son is now in medical school. He and three of his friends helped pull together some of the display. Her youngest son is a student at UC Berkeley and has yet to see this year’s village.
“He’s going to go crazy when he comes home,” McKay said. “It’s so special to me when the kids come home to this. It’s a little kooky but it’s very warm.”
“As I grow older I realize what my mother constructs is spectacular,” Nora said. “It becomes clearer and clearer that this Christmas village will be continued for a long time, through me — sorry Liam and Danny. I’m so proud of my mom. What a funny, amazing, Christmas tradition. I’m very fortunate to have a house packed full of Christmas fun.”
“The village is a wonder to all who get the chance to see it, and exemplifies who my mom is as a person,” said Danny. “She is a kind, caring, and highly intelligent woman who has achieved success in all areas of life. She is an incredible mother and doctor, who shows dedication to everything she does in the world.”