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Christmas village set up tips

Setting up a Christmas village can be a fun way to decorate for the holidays. Some people set up rather elaborate and impressive displays. Here are some Christmas village set up tips from a model railroader.

Some people build villages with hundreds of buildings. Not everyone has that the space or budget for something like that. Even with a modest collection, you can set up a memorable village. Here’s how.

A cheap way to make hills

Elaborate Christmas villages often feature hills. You can buy foam hills from craft stores, but they are small and expensive. You can make your own custom hills and valleys much more cheaply.

Home improvement stores sell 4×8 foam sheets for insulation, in the same section as the lumber. Depending on the thickness, you can expect to pay $10-$25 for a 4×8 sheet. To make hills, simply cut pieces of foam from the sheet and stack them. Drape a piece of white felt or white batting over the foam to make it look like it’s covered with snow.

Don’t worry too much about how you cut your foam. Just cut each piece a little smaller than the one under it. The shape should be a bit irregular. Covering it with felt or batting will hide most of the irregularity.

Cheap roads and sidewalks

Craft stores sell plastic cobblestone material in rolls that look really good, but again, they’re expensive. You can buy 3/16-inch foamcore boards at craft stores for about $3 each and cut them into strips to make roads and sidewalks. White sheets look like concrete; black sheets look like asphalt.

Create scenes

Christmas village set up tips - figures

Placing figures of carolers and kids playing in the snow conveys a sense of the season.

As you set up your village, try to put things together that look like they go together. Group houses together near a church and a school to make a neighborhood. Group stores together to make a commercial district. Consider lighting up the other buildings but leaving the school dark. It’s Christmas and school’s out for break, after all. Little touches like that make a difference that people notice.

It’s OK if you don’t have a huge budget for hundreds of buildings. You can abbreviate as you need to. A couple of houses with a church in between is enough to convey a sense of a neighborhood.

Place figures outside to bring your village to life. Kids playing on sleds and carolers singing evoke a sense of the season and of tradition. Tradition is a big part of nostalgia, after all. Look at your figures and see how you can make them go together. Create vignettes.

When you place other figures, place them at about a 45 degree angle. This allows you to see them from the front of the scene, but still gives you a sense of people talking to each other. Scenes of people talking conveys a sense of a nice place, where people are friendly, and where Christmas is about more than just hustle and bustle.

The best compliment that someone can give to your Christmas village is, “I want to live there.” Create that place. Think of it as implenting fan fiction with buildings and scenery and remember, this is supposed to be fun.

Use vehicles to create a sense of time

Christmas village set up tips - vehicles

A truck like the one on the left evokes the 1930s or 1940s. Horses evoke the 1800s or early 1900s.

Vehicles do more to create a sense of time period than anyone else. Buildings last a century or more. Car styles change much faster. Even someone with no interest in cars can tell the difference between cars from the 1920s and 1960s. And of course, absence of cars evokes an even earlier period, if that’s what you’re after.

Cars scaled anywhere from 1:64 to 1:43 look just fine with Christmas villages but they will look better if you are consistent. You can use cars to set the era. You can also seek out models of cars you or particular relatives once owned to make your display more meaningful.

Group by size

Small buildings in the back on an elevated platform creates the illusion of distance.

If you have different brands or product lines of buildings, the sizes can vary a bit. Try to group things together by size. And you can use the size variance to your advantage if you’d like.

Place smaller buildings toward the back and elevate them if you can. Accessorize them with smaller figures and vehicles and trees nearby. Place the big ones up front. Varying the size creates the illusion of a larger village without really increasing the amount of space required by all that much.

Dollar Tree’s Christmas village, especially the older porcelain buildings, are ideal for use at the back of your village since they are considerably smaller than Lemax or Department 56.

Use a backdrop

Christmas village set up tips - backdrop

This starry backdrop contributes to the night scene immensely.

Whether you make a starry sky or print a simple winter scene, placing a backdrop behind your village makes it look bigger and more finished.

You can buy a commercial ready-made backdrop or make your own. A Google search for “Christmas village illustration” can be very productive and yield some simple yet pleasing artwork you can enlarge and print out.

Here’s another approach that yields surprisingly stunning results. Simply make a starry sky like the picture to the right. Attach your image to a 20×30 sheet of foam core board and place it behind your Christmas village to give it depth and complete the scene. It makes the scene photograph better and makes you want to get down on the same level as the village and look around for the experience of being there. You can almost hear the song “Silent Night” playing in the church.

Sound effects

For added effect, consider stashing an old smartphone or MP3 player somewhere near the layout playing sound effects on a loop. It doesn’t just have to be Christmas carols. The sounds of church bells, vintage cars driving past, and anything else that conveys a sense of a time and place that isn’t there anymore all helps. Invoking senses other than sight helps to elevate the sense of nostalgia.

You don’t have to do it all at once

One mistake people make is thinking they have to do it all in one setting. You don’t. You can set up the basics some weekend, with the platform and the buildings, then build the rest in stages. Spend literally 15 minutes a day on it for however long it takes, planting scenes, lighting buildings, and so on. It makes it more fun and you end up with an elaborate setup in the end. And you can take it down in stages too, if you start early enough.


As a model railroader, I have to mention trains of course. Your Christmas village doesn’t have to have a train, but trains definitely evoke a sense of times past. That old Lionel or American Flyer train that’s been in the family for decades will look just fine with your Christmas village. Here are some tips for getting it back up and running again.

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