The Christmas Loft

"What's This?"
December 10, 2010 —At its most compressed, a complete Christmas, from the mouse that wasn’t stirring to the Bethlehem star high above and all the balsam-scented merriness in between, can fit into less than 11,000 square feet. I swear by Good King Wenceslas that this is so. I’ve seen it.

In northern New England, there is a small chain of year-round Christmas retailers called Christmas Loft stores (not to be confused with New England’s Christmas Tree Shops, which are just unthemed discount stores with out-dated branding, the popularity of which I’m in a bit of a fog about).

Now, year-round Christmas stores are pretty common. I even had one just down the road from me when I lived in Florida, the land of Heat Miser, where reindeer are replaced by dolphins on Santa’s workforce and snowmen are made of sand and wear sunglasses. It’s a really sad place in December.

But, with few exceptions, Christmas is a sad thing anywhere in any other season but its own, so I usually have no use for year-round Christmas stores. It’s like a kid having to walk through his empty grade school building in July. There’s something perverse about it. However, at two of the four Christmas Lofts, they’ve figured out a way to make Christmas fit nicely into any of the squares on the calendar, no matter which page.

The store website says that its Shelburne, VT, and its North Conway, NH, locations feature “an animated New England Christmas Village.” That’s an undersell. It sounds like they have some kind of window display of small moving parts. What they mean, though, is that they transform the entire interior of these two stores into a virtual New England Christmas Village that you walk through and that is incorporated into the shopping experience itself.

It’s completely immersive, with no windows to the outside or anything else (other than price tags and cash registers) to ruin the illusion. It’s the kind of place that can remedy a bad Christmas season, if you’re in the middle of one of those, or encourage a good one, if you’ve lucked into that. Just Christmas everywhere. I’ve been to both locations, and one is as good as the other, but just so you know, the pictures in this article are all from the Shelburne store, since that’s the one we most recently visited.

From the outside, the two stores just look like stores. Sure, Santa-logo’d stores with wreaths and string-light icicles and a few Christmas inflatables thrown out front (because at some point while I was apparently napping, Christmas became inflatable), but stores nevertheless.

However, entering through the doors is like stepping through that tree portal in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Literally at the Shelburne store. Suddenly, you’re outside again. At night. Santa and his team of not-dolphins race through the dark above you. Christmas music is playing, and across a bridge that you can physically cross (a covered one in the North Conway store), is a town center surrounded by buildings.

Snowmen and animatronic people dressed warmly populate the area. Everything’s covered in fluffy fake snow. Lighted Christmas trees grow wild. A mechanical cow in a Santa hat wishes you Merry Christmas. So does an anthropomorphic tree that towers above you like a prop from some old McDonald’s Playland. There’s the classic white New England church. A house. A quaint little shop. Through the windows of each you can see various homey and inviting scenes acted out by three-dimensional characters. The way I’m explaining it, it all sounds bigger than it is, but it’s much bigger than you expect, if that makes sense.

The front of each of those faux-buildings seems like they should be the outer walls of the actual building, but their doorways open into a warren of interconnected rooms, each one themed according to this or that type of Christmas merchandise. There’s a room for collectible Christmas villages, a room full of nutcrackers, a room full of nativity sets, etc. There are classic decorations and pop culture ones. Homespun and animatronic. Strange, artsy things and cozy, familiar ones.

Earlier this month was the first time that I’d ever visited during the Christmas season. The only real differences from any other season were that it wasn’t as shocking to enter since we were already acclimatized to Christmas, it was a lot more crowded, stock was marked up, and a man dressed in a Santa suit met us at the door, handing out candy canes and making promises to children that parents had no hope of ever fulfilling in a million Christmases.

The interconnected interiors that showcase the products basically circle around the store, which allows you to play that Scooby Doo hallway scene where everyone impossibly enters and exits different doors. If I’m remembering my Scooby Doo correctly, they also played the game in a filing cabinet. There are also enough offshoot rooms from the main circuit that it’s easy to get lost or miss something if you’re not careful. There’s even a single random Halloween room, which I mentioned at back when I was blogging this year’s Halloween season.

Visiting one of these stores, it’s hard to pretend that Christmas and consumerism are not awesome together. Whether you’re one of the Three Wise Men buying stuff for Christ or a Santa set up in a mall, Christmas and consumerism are Dasher and Dancer, and we shouldn’t try to separate that so much.

In the end, I’m way more okay with these two year-round Christmas stores than others of their sort. But only because they make their own context. It really is Christmas in there. And, outside, whether it’s January 2 (the worst day of the year since all the best holidays are over at that point) or Easter Sunday, it’s irrelevant. They’re reality-changers, those Christmas Lofts. We need more stores like that. After all, reality needs some regular changing. Like an infant. Actually, that’s why holidays themselves are so awesome in the first place. Because they do that for us every year.


  1. I am glad you wrote this because last summer, my cousins and I visited the Conway, NH iteration of this barrel of crazy and... it is something to see. Tragically, my camera refused to take any pictures in that amazing place, so I am very happy that I can now point to this article and say, "See! I wasn't making it up!"

    I should also mention that the "Authentic Southwestern Stuff" store nearby is equally insane and awesome.

  2. Have you been to Yankee Candle, in Deerfield, MA? It sounds like it might be a lot like this. I love going there, but, alas, my asthma has grown into a small monster in recent years, and scented candles are hard to take.

  3. EBN: Yes, I visited that store a few months ago and posted some picures on the OTIS Facebook page. The Yankee Candle store is kind of like this, but it's not totally Christmas-centered. There's like one or two rooms of Christmas, a castle room, and some other stuff there. Worth dropping by.

  4. Sometimes around Christmas, the North Conway store has a pasty looking bonnet-wearing Pleasant Older Lady statue sitting in the entryway. When you approach to marvel at how realistic she looks, it turns out she's real. You can hear the shrieks of surprised shoppers all over the store.

    Also unusual...the North Conway store and the one that closed in Meredith have fabulous views. But are only collected in the parking lot.

    For those so inclined, Christmas Lofts are great stores. And it's amazing how the staff retain a smile even up to the last possible salesminute.

    1. This comment will probably never be seen, but I am an elf in the n conway store, and it is a truly amazing ecperience. And seeing this, made me think of all the adults and children that Mrs. Claus scared and cherished. She was our Mrs. Claus for many years. She has not been with us for a few years. And sadly she passed away over the early summer months of this year. She brought alot of joy and laughter to many. And noone will ever replace or be as good as she was. We miss you Mrs.Claus aka Ginny

  5. I live near N. Conway and I love going to that store! Thanks for the great review!