One Christmas evening, a group of friends set off to enjoy a dinner of celebration at a small country inn nestled in a quiet river town. As they rounded a bend in the road, they saw the small, old-fashioned village decorated for the holidays. The lights, like fairies, glowed and sparkled amid the freshly fallen snow. All evening, the conversation was full of Christmas memories and the visions the tiny town had evoked, and the idea for a lighted Christmas village was born. That spark of an idea became a reality when, in 1976, Department 56 introduced a series of six hand-painted, ceramic buildings. Since then, Department 56 has become a leader in the giftware, collectables and holiday decorating market, priding ourselves on the high-quality pieces we offer to all. We are best known for our hand-painted, illuminated villages that bring holiday cheer to whomever sees them.
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The company behind the villages
Over thirty years ago, Department 56 began as part of Bachman's, a premiere retail florist in Minneapolis. Bachman's used a numbering system to identify each of its departments. The number assigned to wholesale gift imports division was, you guessed it, 56.
Now headquartered in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, Department 56 has become a leader in the giftware, collectables and holiday decorating industry and is best known for hand-crafted lighted villages, Snowbabies™ figurines and extensive lines of holiday and home decorative products.
The building of a village: An historic events calendar
The foundation of Department 56 took shape with the introduction of six charming, lighted, ceramic buildings. These six premiere items were the beginnings of The Original Snow Village®.
The original Original Snow Village designs were retired in order to accommodate twelve new introductions as well as the appearance of the first Village accessories.
The concept of The Heritage Village Collection® was developed. The first release was The Dickens' Village Series®, a collection of seven nostalgic shops and a church, all designed to capture the spirit of Christmas in Victorian England.
The New England Village Series and The Alpine Village Series® were added to The Heritage Village Collection. That same year, the world of Snowbabies™ bisque figurines was introduced.
The Heritage Village collection continued to grow with the addition of the hustle and bustle of Christmas in the City® and the inspiring Little Town of Bethlehem™.
The legend of Santa became a part of the Department 56 tradition with the addition of The North Pole Series™ to The Heritage Village Collection.
Department 56 is bought by the New York investment firm, Forstmann Little.
This year brought the introduction of The Disney Parks Village Series™ and Snowbunnies®.
Our first successful marketing program, "Homes for the Holidays", encouraged new collectors to start a tradition for themselves. With the growing popularity of coffee drinks, Department 56 was pleased to introduce an iconic "Starbucks" Coffee Shop into The Original Snow Village.
The 10th anniversary of Snowbabies was celebrated with the creation of the Snowbabies Friendship Club™. The Classic Ornament Series was also introduced, giving collectors a new way to enjoy classic pieces long since retired.
Another big year for expansion. In October, we opened a second retail store in the new Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. Our first magazine insert, Tablescapes, also hit the newsstands. It featured new and imaginative ways to use Village pieces, Snowbabies and general giftware as a part of home décor.
The release of the popular first Harry Potter Movie based on the novel by J.K. Rowling prompted Department 56 to introduce several giftware items based on Harry, Ron, Hermione and other characters from the movie including a series of secret boxes with interactive clues found on a special internet site.
The next generation in lighting arrived! Department 56 introduced eight lighted buildings that featured the new battery operated "long life cordless lighting" which eliminated the need for electrical cords in the lighted buildings. Now you could put up displays in places you never thought you could -- on a mantel, in a wreath or in the center of a table.
The popular Clothtique Possible Dreams collection was added to an already strong line-up of outstanding giftware. Every figure is handmade by a team of skilled artisans. It has become the No. 1 Santa brand.
Appealing to the young and young at heart, “Tickle”, a line of luxurious collection of fashion and home accessories was introduced. This artistic inspired collection was the combined effort of many licensed and house designers. The offerings were as varied as the appeal. The Original Snow Village celebrated 30 years as the “gold standard” of lighted Villages and continued to attract new collectors, many are young families hoping to establish their own holiday traditions.
Department 56 becomes part of the ENESCO family of giftware brands. Enesco's International Headquarters is located in Itasca, Ill. ENESCO was founded in 1958 as the import division of N. Shure Company, one of the largest and oldest general merchandise catalog companies. Following N. Shure's sale to Butler Brothers, the import division reorganised as Enesco Corporation, formed from the phonic spellings of the prior parent company's name initials - N.S.Co. Enesco was sold four times, culminating in 2007 when substantially all of Enesco's assets were sold to Tinicum Capital Partners II, LLP, a private investment partnership. Enesco then became a privately-held company and changed its legal name to Enesco, LLC.
Our love of snowmen inspired artist Kristi Jensen Pierro to create a new giftware line of chubby snowmen with a little sass and a lot of attitude. "Snowpinions" gave collectors and consumers the ability to have a little fun when selecting gifts that convey just what they'd like to say.
A new Disney licensed Village, "Mickey's Merry Christmas Village" joined our Classic Brands line and proved to be quite popular. All of the major characters were there enjoying the holidays in brightly colored ceramic pieces.
A licensing agreement with contemporary artist Travis Louie, creator of mythical and unusual portraits of people with sometimes larger than life additions of insects, pets and accessories produced the first Snow Village Halloween lit piece featuring two of his characters in "Walter & Larry's Crypt".
The royal wedding of Prince William and Katherine Middleton inspired the addition of "Anglesey Cottage" with coordinating accessory, "A Fairytale Romance" for Dickens' Village.
"The Grinch" by Dr. Seuss became a new Village in the Classic Brands series and featured Cindy-Lou Who and all the Whos down in Whoville!
An exciting year for Department 56. We were pleased to introduce several and highly desired licensed lit buildings into our collections. The Christmas In The City series introduced The Chrysler Building, designed by Village artist Tom Bates. This highly detailed New York building was destined to become a favorite.
Snowbabies artist, Kristi Jensen Pierro continued to thrill collectors with her new addition to Snowbabies "Christmas Memories". Inspired by winter time and the holidays when we reflect on love, family and home, this series brought home memories of vintage holiday cards and Currier & Ives sentimental scenes and incorporated the traditional colours of red and green with the classic bisque porcelain of the Snowbabies.
Our giftware lines continued to grow and evolve with the introduction of "Go Dog™" along with fresh new additions for the popular "Snowpinions™", and other Christmas related lines. Our licensed products included the children's favorite "Elf On A Shelf®" and "Fisher Price™" nostalgic ornaments, while we continued to add pieces in the Peanuts, Grinch, Rudolph®, and Dr. Seuss collections.
The Department 56 Villages maintained their place as number one in the gold standard of lighted Villages. We were very pleased to add "Downton Abbey®" which became a collector favourite this year.
We just had to “Let It Go!” in 2015 with the addition of the immensely popular Disney animated movie, “Frozen” with two special Village pieces, “Elsa’s Ice Castle” and “Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post”. There were also several key accessories offered to complete the display – Olaf, Sven, Kristoff, Oaken and Anna!
Elf on a Shelf® and Peanuts® led the way in “Classic Brands” in 2015 with additional new introductions and clever giftware products featuring the mischievous Elf and members of the Peanuts gang. Other strong name brands included Harley-Davidson®, Coca-Cola®, Disney, Fisher Price™, the Grinch™, Hasbro, Dairy Queen® and Dr. Seuss™ in both giftware and Village categories.
Snowbabies® artist Kristi Jensen Pierro designed several pieces for the new Snowbabies Family Collection celebrating many family orientated occasions – new babies, first love and family ties! She also continued creating the very popular Snowpinions® which expanded this line in one of the most sought after giftware lines offered by Department 56.
The artists of Department 56 continued to look at industry trends and seek out new ideas to create the most innovative giftware items in the industry and as we entered our 40th anniversary year, planned to strive to be the leader we have always been. To celebrate this milestone anniversary, our creative team designed a number of special pieces that represented the most iconic designs for each collection. These included our Villages, Snowbabies, Possible Dreams’ Santas and Snowpinions, along with several commemorative ornaments for all to enjoy.
We continued to offer the classic Snowbabies by artist Kristi Jensen Pierro as well as her irreverent and just plain sassy “Snowpinions” collection that included gifts for girlfriends and best buddies. And a whole group of seasonal Santas continued to delight collectors of the "Possible Dreams."
Department 56 launched the Game of Thrones Village collection to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the TV hit. The village pieces have been designed to scale with the original set pieces, helping to bring fan-favourite moments to life.