Antoinette Stockenberg's 2012 Christmas Display


For a few years now, I've been adding tin-figure characters with their tin-figure tales to my mantel village each Christmas. After the holiday -- sometimes way too long after it -- I carefully pack everything and everyone away. And the following year, my little village of antique cardboard houses reappears and the tales continue. Most of the stories are happy ones, because, after all, most people are happy. But as in life, sometimes a deep sadness occurs. Recently the village lost the original inspiration behind it: Ted Althof, a brilliant man who became a mentor not only to me in this hobby but to a host of people around the country and the world who are charmed by the little cardboard collectibles, mostly built in Japan before WWII. It was Ted who gathered what scarce information exists about them and created an irresistible website called "Papa Ted's Place."

Ted's website is filled with his thoughtful and wistful musings about childhood and Christmas, sprinkled among an astonishing array of vintage cardboard houses. You can spend whole days being enchanted in this online museum; I have a link at the bottom of this page that will take you there. Papa Ted was Papa Christmas to many of us, and he is and will be dearly missed. My 2012 Christmas mantel is devoted to Ted, in fond memory.

A Loss in the Village
The 2012 Christmas mantel.
   For closeups, click on the church and each of the thirteen houses.

Antique Christmas cardboard house putz (village) on fireplace mantel at night (200K)

The Snowman Contest Scene (Houses, 1, 2, 3 and 4):

This year there will be no grand Christmas parade. The last one cost far too much, and Mayor Pittman's wealthy philanthropist wife Lavinia has declined to pay for another. (Everyone in the village agreed that the Mayor had spent lavishly in organizing the parade, but they were hoping that his wife hadn't noticed.) Even worse, the winter has been unseasonably warm and the river cannot be counted on to support ice skating. By January, surely. But not now; not yet. All of it has left a great number of bored children and their frustrated parents wondering what to do during the holiday break?

Not very much -- until an unpredicted snowstorm blankets the village in deep wet snow that isn't fluffy and doesn't sparkle but is absolutely perfect for building snowmen. (And of course for packing good, hard, won't-fall-apart snowballs to knock hats off of wary passers-by.)

Snowman(50K) An impromptu contest is organized for the best snowman. What an excellent idea! Someone has anonymously donated a perfectly useable sled as The Grand Prize, and the children all know who: probably, definitely, Mildred Soames, the retired spinster schoolteacher who has a great fondness for the generation of students who have passed through her classroom. And, anyway, Jeffrey and his brother Jimmy can prove the sled was hers: last summer they sneaked into the teacher's potting shed out back and saw the sled hanging in its rafters. "Whatta waste," said Jimmy at the time. "Miz Soames sure ain't ever gonna use it. Where would she put her cane?"

snowman(19K) And now see how things are turning out. Maybe they'll win the very sled for themselves! "We hafta win, we just hafta," Jeffrey moans. "But, oh, no, lookit -- Pete's snowman has a long red scarf! How can we win without a scarf?" Jimmy, on the other hand, is more worried about Mickey Sullivan's snowman. "Oh, man, Mickey got a cigar for his! Where'd he get a cigar? C'mon, Jeff, stick that carrot in and get down off me. My shoulders hurt!"

snowball(4K) Up on a hill above the snowman contest, little June clutches her doll as she watches and hopes. Her brother Peter has to win, he just has to! There is only one sled for all six children in her family to share; the other two have broken runners. Hurry up, she implores. If her father sees that his favorite red scarf is wrapped around a snowman, there will be no sledding for anyone, not if they had a hundred sleds.

snowball(4K) Next door, in the house that everyone calls The Rainbow House, Alice has a few choice words for her younger brother. "I've spent the whole day at home, waiting and hoping, and then when I dash out to see the snowmen for just two little minutes -- why didn't you come get me? Oh! I could just scream. Couldn't you at least have told Stephen where I was? What is wrong with you?"

Thirteen-year-old Eddy, pretending not to hear his older sister despite her screaming in his ear, makes a big business of tying his shoe. Ignoring Alice drives her crazy, and he knows it.

The Confrontation Scene (House 5):

boat(4K) Johnny Hooks has gone to sea for the last time. You could say he was going soft, or you could say he was getting smart, but the last year has been a watershed for him. The truth is, he got sick and tired of life aboard ship: tired of knocking weevils out of his bread, and tired of breaking built-up ice off the caprail. Tired of being cold and hungry, and tired of having his hands torn to shreds from furling stiff, half-frozen sails. Tired of sleeping in a hard bunk and having to listen to rats scuttling across the crew's quarters all night. Tired, most of all, of being alone. He wanted a warm, soft bed and someone to share it with forever.

rose(14K) He wanted Sonja. What a fool he'd been to push her away. It was so obvious to him now that she was The One. How had he not seen it before? Oh, he could explain it away: he was young, a farmer's son who'd never left the village. He had been certain that there was a whole other world out there, and he had been determined to see it. Well, now he had. And it turned out that the world out there was not so different from the world he'd left. People were people, whatever the language they spoke or the color of their skin. He'd met good ones, bad ones, but mostly in between ones. Just like in the village.

And now, heart thumping loudly in his chest, he is face to face with Sonja at last. He had heard from his father that Sonja had taken a position as housekeeper for Mrs. Pettifore -- and for that, he was genuinely sorry. The attorney's wife was a real dragon; everyone knew that she went around the house wearing a pair of white gloves and checking every surface -- the tops of doors! -- for dust, and pity the servant who hadn't got there before her. Poor Sonja. Johnny has no doubt that she will be thrilled to escape, even if it's to live on a struggling farm with his father and him.

But ... Sonja doesn't react at all the way Johnny had hoped. She must have known he was back, and yet how to explain the wary look in her eyes when she steps outside and finds him waiting? She reminds him of a hen confronted by a rooster in his father's coop. His spirit plummets, but he plows on. "I'm back," he says simply. For you is his unspoken promise. But Sonja begins to stammer and look away, her cheeks on fire. There's someone else, he's convinced. In his panic, he can only register scraps of sentences and parts of her words: "I never ... still time ... if only ... skating ... there must be ... he believes I can ... you would understand that!"

But Johnny didn't understand any of it. There was someone else, a "he" in her life. Crushed, he mumbles a quick goodbye and turns on his heel. He was born on a farm from a mother who died giving him birth and then raised by his widower father; Johnny Hooks knows all too well how to live without a woman around.

The Downtown Scene (Houses 6, 7, and 8):

safe(14K) The movers and shakers linger in front of the Flatiron Building, the village's largest and grandest structure, as they wind up the latest of an endless series of meetings. There is definite tension among them and has been, ever since Dr. Nicholas Greene crossed swords with Banker Max Schurster over whether to foreclose on Farmer John Hooks, raze his farmhouse and outbuildings, and build a new hospital on the acreage. After young Johnny came home with a purse full of money that he'd acquired God only knew how, and handed it over to his father to ward off foreclosure, the original plan had to be put on hold. Of course, foreclosing on the farm was only a matter of time, because Farmer Hooks was bound to fall behind in his payments again. But attorney Pettifore and Banker Schurster had little patience for playing that game. "We'll buy him out if we must," they had said flatly, even though the farmer had refused all previous offers.


symbol(4K) It was midwife Grace Newcomb who exerted her gentle influence on Doctor Greene, who then was able to bring his old friend and college classmate, Mayor Albert Pittman, over to his side with an alternative plan: to convert an old building in the center of town which has seen little use in a decade. It is perfectly placed -- right next to City Hall and excellent transportation -- and therefore accessible to all. Why, just look at Sam Rickens there now, sweeping the train platform; he's able to walk to work each day. Granted, it is always more expensive to re-purpose a building than to build new, but the location! It can't be beat.

So Grace is happy (she feels much sympathy for the widowed farmer), Doctor Greene is happy (he feels much of something else for Grace), and the Mayor is happy -- because Lavinia Pittman has decided that the location will make up for the extra expense. If Lavinia is happy, then everyone is happy.

The Women's Rivalry Scene (Houses 9 and 10):

By now Dorothea Sparks has settled nicely in the village. If ever the phrase "Merry Widow" applied, it is to Mrs. Sparks. She has had occasion to host numerous balls, and -- appalling to say -- she danced every dance at them rather than mingle among her guests. Who does that? Not Lavinia Pittman! The mayor's wife has grown increasingly unsettled by the quick ascent of the recent stranger who is now her social rival: Dorothea Sparks seems to have unlimited resources, and no one knows where it comes from. Lavinia tries to comfort herself with the thought that the widow is so wildly impulsive that she will no doubt burn through whatever fortune she has, and then social order will be restored in the village.

horse(3K) With a carefully casual glance over her shoulder, Lavinia instructs her driver not -- under any circumstances -- to allow Dorothea Sparks's carriage to overtake her own.

The Lucky Happy Couple Scene (House 10):

car(3K) Clyde and Margaret, surely the luckiest couple in the village, have been left a very nice bequest by an elderly aunt who had no children of her own. Combined with the proceeds of the modest house they've sold, they've been able to buy a bigger house in the city, and not only that -- there was enough left over for them to buy a motor car! That was Clyde's idea. After all, they have a child now, he reasoned, and another on the way, and babies are prone to colds and influenza and such if they're not kept warm. Margaret is so happy; they're the first in the village to own a motor car, and she can envision herself taking her three sisters for jaunts in the country. However, Clyde doesn't think much of that idea, so he will require some persuading, something that Margaret has always been very good at.

The Little Green House Scene (House 11):

teapot(13K) Aging bachelor Francis Bepko is inside his niece's charming cottage and having a cup of tea in its sweetly appointed parlor. The tea is just the lift he needs, because the trip to the village to visit his beloved niece gets more arduous each time. Still, he listens with interest to his niece's rambling account of the village's comings and goings, not only because he's a very good listener, but also because she has glanced out the window and suddenly mentions a name he knows well: Dorothea Sparks.

"My dear child, I know that woman! Or at least, of her. Back in Connecticut, she rocked the capitol with her shenanigans. She was one to make merry, she was. Two senators almost fought a duel over her. Did you not know? It was in all of our papers. Of course, they were only state senators, but even so. I'm surprised you haven't heard."

But harried Angeline knows nothing of it. "How could I? The children keep me so busy, and I have never been one for idle gossip. More tea?"

The Funeral Scene (Houses 12, 13 and the Church):

star(4K) At the far end of town, in front of the little blue church and far from the lively snowman contest, that's where the grieving is. The village has lost one of its best and brightest. He was not young, Papa Ted. But he was in the very prime of his old age. And now, here it is, Christmas. Without him. "How can this be?" the villagers wonder. The service is over, the comforting words said, and still they linger in sorrow.

Snowman(3K) Snowman(3K) The children in particular don't understand. Where has he gone? Why isn't he here? Joanna's brothers, choir boys with voices of angels, are especially upset. In fine weather, Papa Ted loved to play his horn on his front porch, and they loved to listen and, whenever they knew the words to a tune, to sing along. They implore Father Andrew to let them sing one more hymn, because they just know that Papa Ted can hear them. The kindly padre smiles and says, "You certainly may." The boys' voices are heartbreakingly sweet and innocent, and more tears fall among those who are gathered to remember this very special man.

angel(14K) Big Billy has his own reason for being there. For one thing, Papa Ted believed in angels, and so did Billy! Papa Ted said that his angel used to help him find his eyeglasses or tell him when he'd locked out the cat. Billy always asked his angel to help him get home without being chased by the other kids. So in that way, because their angels were pretty good at helping them out, Papa Ted and Billy were more or less like brothers.

angel(14K) Billy had to admit that he was normally kind of shy, but today he stands closer to the grave than anyone, because Papa Ted was the one person he knew who talked to him as if he could understand Big Things. Whether about box turtles or steam engines or trains or the number of stars in the universe, Papa Ted was glad to take the time to explain -- sometimes at great length -- just how it was that everything worked. He knew everything about everything, and no matter what question Billy posed to him, Papa Ted knew the answer. He was the smartest man that Billy had ever known. There was just one question that Papa Ted had not had an answer for, and now he knew that, too.


hammer(14K) Will and Harmony Jenkins have come to pay their respects as well. Papa Ted and Will had talked shop and politics a few times over the years: about the best way to hang a door, or why the country was or was not going to the dogs. They hadn't always seen eye to eye, and sometimes Will found his temper rising to match Papa Ted's over some issue, even a trivial one. But they were always friends when next they met, because Papa Ted rarely held a grudge.

Harmony did not know Papa Ted well, but she knew that he was someone of uncommon honor. All she'd had to do was look into his soulful eyes to see that under that sometimes blustery exterior beat the heart of a romantic. He struck her as a true idealist, which probably explained the disappointment he sometimes felt about life -- because, after all, nothing in life is ever ideal. Harmony was herself a level-headed woman who well understood how fortunate she was to have found a wonderful husband and bear two children she adored. More than that, she could not ask. She finds herself drawing closer to Will as they contemplate the loss to their village. Life was so fleeting! She offers a prayer that she may live her own life as fully as the man who has just left it.

Nearby, Mrs. Pettifore has also come to pay her respects. She and Papa Ted had almost nothing in common, especially as to matters of housekeeping, but she was still deeply grateful to him for once stopping her daughter Eloise from bolting in front of a carriage after Eloise broke free of Mrs. Pettifore's grip. He was just walking by, but his reflexes were lightning fast; he saved Eloise's life. (Ever since that time, Mrs. Pettifore has held onto her daughter with a steel grip.)

hammer(14K) Midwife Grace Newcomb is a surprise attendee. She is on her way back from delivering a beautiful, strapping nine-pound baby, and is filled anew with the wonder of life. Seeing the funeral, she stops near Eloise, whom she also delivered, and rubs the child's back in comfort. She has a sense of experiencing life full circle this day, and it affects her profoundly. Her thoughts drift, as they always do of late, to Doctor Nicholas Greene. She will see Nicholas tonight, and several other nights this week, as they finalize plans for her to formally team with him in his medical practice. It's a dream come true for her, and she hopes that her deepening feelings for him don't conspire against it.

horse(7K) Mrs. Jack Jones has come too late for the service; she was reluctant to leave her ailing dog, even though Jack Jones is more than capable of caring for Rusty for the short space of time his wife will be gone. Mrs. Jones is in a very fragile state -- Rusty means everything to her -- and she can't stop shedding tears, for Papa Ted and for Rusty, too.

horse(7K) One pet who is not ailing is Pank the cat. Pank is young and playful and devoted to the man who took her in as a stray. To Pank, life is a game, and everything in it a toy -- from the mice in the yard to a crushed paper ball. Pank prides herself on being the best retriever in the whole wide world, better and much, much faster than any dog could ever be. Papa Ted loved her an unusual amount, that's what he always told her, and Pank isn't sure that she will ever love anyone back as much as she did him. So she waits patiently for him to return, because, well, you never know.

The Toast to Papa Ted Scene (House 14):

lighthouse(2K) Old Man MacGowan has quit the lighthouse he'd tended for several years. The damp, salty air has proved too much for his rheumatism, and his arthritic bones can no longer bend themselves easily into the skiff needed for moving back and forth between the light and the land. He is back on shore now and staying with a friend while he contemplates his next move.

"It were a beautiful ceremony," he says to the Woodcuts as he draws on his pipe. "Them kids sure could sing. Horn man was more 'n up to the task as well. Ayeh. Well done."

Mrs. Woodcut, sitting beside her husband on a bench not far from the church, nods in agreement. "He deserved it. That man touched so many hearts, brought joy to so many Christmases. How many can say that about themselves? He did a whole lot of good, Papa Ted did."

Mr. Woodcut grimaces. "Yuh, he did. No denying. But then again, the man did have his ... moments, should we say."

To which his wife replies, "And you don't? All men are bears at one time or another."

To which Mr. Woodcut responds, "Oh? Well, all women are --"

snowball(4K) "Stop, dear," says Mrs. Woodcut gently, cutting off her husband of twenty-five years with a smile. She lifts her glass and says, "I propose a toast: To Papa Ted Althof -- father, historian, author, actor, musician, artist, designer, inventor, repairman, saver of turtles and seeker of knowledge. We will not see his like again. He was a true Renaissance --"

"Jack of all trades," her husband chimes in.

"Yes. A Renaissance Jack of All Trades. To you, Ted. We will miss you."


To see the website of "Papa Ted" Althof, which has graciously been archived by Paul Race on his own wonderful website called, click here.

For earlier chapters of this Christmas tale, click on the links to previous mantels. The story begins in 2006:

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