Department 56 vs Lemax is a battle between the two biggest names in holiday villages. There are a lot of similarities between the two brands, but the differences may matter to you. Here’s what you need to know if you’re considering one or the other.
Name brand vs Generic
Department 56 sells under its own name. Lemax doesn’t always. Look at the fine print on the store-branded stuff and you’ll often find Lemax made it.
Scale is the relative size of a model compared to the real thing. Neither Lemax or Department 56 is in the business of making finescale replicas. But generally speaking their stuff is close to the same size. That means you can mix and match the two without it looking too awkward.
Neither aspire to scale fidelity, but when I’ve examined them, more often than not the buildings come close to 1:55 scale. That’s not too far off from 1:64 diecast vehicles and halfway between S scale and O scale trains. Postwar American Flyer trains are S scale. People associate Lionel with O scale but most postwar Lionel trains are closer to 1:55 scale, which is a nice coincidence.
Both companies’ figures are far larger than the buildings themselves. Some people may not like this and others think it adds to the charm. The larger size does make it easier to see details like facial expressions.
Where to buy each
Generally, you find Department 56 in specialty stores and department stores. You can find Lemax at craft stores, home improvement stores, and even discount stores. That plays into the price as well. Lemax products often sell for half or a third the cost of a comparable Department 56 product.
Lemax started in 1990. Department 56 started in 1976. Both brands have been around a while. It may be tempting to think of Lemax as the copycat but neither invented the holiday village. Holiday villages grew out of the tradition of setting up nativity scenes. You can look at it as a natural progression, or a more secular spin.
The tradition actually dates back to pre-Civil War times, although commercial holiday villages are a more recent phenomenon. Throughout the 20th century, many people built holiday villages out of inexpensive cardboard buildings they purchased at dime stores.
Anything can be collectible, but Department 56 has more of a following than Lemax, and secondhand prices tend to be higher on Department 56. If you’re thinking about collecting either of them though, collect because you enjoy them, not because you expect them to be valuable someday.
At estate sales, vintage Christmas items are frequently among the first things to go. But the holiday village items tend not to sell fast and they don’t get high prices unless it’s something really special. I think most of the people who want these have plenty.