Story originally published in the Rapid City Journal.
In Jeff Jonas’ fantastical Christmas village, Santa’s sleigh flies above neighborhoods of charming houses and shops, ships float in a harbor, a hot air balloon is nestled in the mountains, a train makes its way around the town, and even a Yeti lurks in the nearby woods.
A simple Christmas gift has evolved into a captivating holiday experience unlike any other in the Black Hills. The Jonas family invites the community to visit their enchanting “Christmas Town” through Dec. 23 at The Hive, 512 Main St., in downtown Rapid City. Admission is free. Visits can be scheduled by appointment Monday through Wednesday. “Christmas Town” will be open to the public from 3 to 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays, and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. From Dec. 19 to 23, “Christmas Town” will be open to the public daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
While visiting “Christmas Town,” guests can enjoy live music, food vendors, crafts for kids, DIY classes and a gingerbread house competition. To register for the DIY classes and gingerbread house competition or to schedule a private viewing of “Christmas Town,” contact email@example.com.
The spectacular Christmas village began in 1982, when Jeff’s mother-in-law gave Jeff and his wife, Deanie, a small village set the couple originally placed under their Christmas tree.
“There were maybe four or five pieces with a little train set and it kept growing. (As it got bigger) Jeff actually put it on an ironing board. (Later), he built it all the way along the living room wall, and as it grew he would move its location,” Deanie said. “One year I moved out of our bedroom so we could put it up.”
The lifelong Rapid City residents love hosting Christmas for their large extended family. The Christmas village has been a highlight of their celebrations. The couple also welcomed friends and neighbors — and even strangers who heard about the village — into their home to see it, Deanie said.
“It was really neat to watch children,” Deanie said. “It was amazing the joy you could see on people’s faces. We just wanted to give back to the community.”
When it outgrew the couple’s house, Jeff put the village in their garage. He added custom elements such as mountains he carved from Styrofoam and a ski slope he designed.
“Every year it was never the same. You knew you were going to see something different,” Deanie said. “Just when you think he couldn’t outdo himself, he’d add another section.”
Over the years, family members contributed new pieces for the village, and Deanie and Jeff began collecting items as well. The village is set in the horse-and-buggy era, and every piece added fits the time period. At last count, the village had grown to 130 pieces, though Deanie said she’s added more pieces since then.
“We never dreamed it would grow to this massiveness,” she said. “It was a hobby that started very small and turned into this.”
A carpenter by profession who won several master craftsman awards, Deanie said her husband put his skills and his artistic eye to use building frameworks on which to display the ever-growing village. Eventually, Deanie said, he would start putting up the village in October, completing a different section or neighborhood every few days.
“We have different areas of town. We have the business district, we have the homes … we had wildlife. We even had a farm outside of town,” Deanie said. “We had a waterfront.”
“I think Christmas was very, very special to him. Growing up, he saw a village one year and he always was intrigued by it,” Deanie said. “That’s where it got so detailed. He wanted it to look like you were walking through a city.”
Though Deanie said she doesn’t have a favorite piece, the full village includes two hot air balloons that hold special meaning for Jeff and Deanie. The couple traveled to several hot air balloon festivals over the years and rode in hot air balloons. Jeff and Deanie dreamed of attending the 50th anniversary Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta this year and, though Jeff’s health didn’t permit him to travel, Deanie went with her daughter and two granddaughters.
Illness has prevented Jeff from putting up his beloved Christmas village, so his family is carrying on the tradition. Craig Mount, Jeff’s nephew, rented the downtown location so the entire community could view the village. About 80% of the pieces, including one of the hot air balloons, are included in this year’s display.
‘It took a village’
Mount and Erika Peterson are the co-founders of Nerdy Nuts, which is sponsoring “Christmas Town” as a feel-good event for the community. Mount hired movers to transport most of the village downtown. Deanie Jonas and Jeff and Deanie’s granddaughter Chloe Thome Jonas worked with Eva M. Gallant of Y-Knot Creations to set up 102 pieces of the village in 10 days. The goal was to open “Christmas Town” for visitors on Nov. 26 in conjunction with the Festival of Lights parade. “Christmas Town” attracted 800 visitors on its first day, Mount said.
“We had to have custom panels and electrical work. We had to have Nick’s Electric come out. It was a substantial amount of work. I don’t know how (my uncle) did it,” Mount said. “His level of nuance … he was such a master carpenter. … The attention to detail is one that only somebody with that kind of creativity and vision could execute.”
To recreate the village, Deanie, Chloe and Gallant followed a basic layout Jeff provided. Deanie and Chloe also worked from their memories of the Christmas village in years past.
“My granddaughter and I spent a lot of time putting it together but we didn’t have Jeff’s artistic touches,” Deanie said. “The volume of what this is speaks for itself. It’s a beautiful collection. … It’s well worth the work just to see people’s reactions.”
Gallant had never seen the Christmas village before. In addition to unpacking the pieces and helping set it up, she crafted backdrops and scenic surroundings for the village. She estimates she spent 100 hours setting it up and designing accompanying pieces.
“I knew the scope was sizeable but I had no idea. … It took a village, no pun intended,” Gallant said. “Chloe and Deanie were essential in the final placements (of pieces). It’s bedazzling. It was a labor of love.”
Gallant’s business specializes in artistic finishes for residential and commercial structures. She created surroundings for the Christmas village including a shimmering ocean and a hand-painted 256-square-foot “night sky” backdrop.
“My husband, Ted, was running back and forth to get supplies. Without him there’s no way I could do this,” said Gallant, noting the Christmas village required batting, professional grade glitter, plaster, glass beads, paint, an enormous amount of Styrofoam and more.
As the Nov. 26 deadline approached, Gallant worked around the clock. She spent Thanksgiving taking occasional breaks for 10-minute naps and to eat the Thanksgiving meal Mount and Peterson brought her.
“Failure was not an option in Operation Christmas village,” Gallant said. “The challenge I faced was how much can I fit in without it being overdone and yet incorporate anything and everything. It was quite an undertaking.”
An added feel-good element is that Gallant is donating 10% of her commission from the Christmas village project to the Apai shelter in Ineu, Romania. The shelter takes in dogs displaced by the war in Ukraine.
This entire “Christmas Town” project is especially meaningful to Chloe, who will eventually inherit the massive Christmas village.
Chloe, 19, is following in Jeff’s footsteps by pursuing a career in construction. She’s working toward a construction technology degree at Western Dakota Technical College and she wants to build tiny homes in Rapid City.
“I’ve had a love for building small homes and creating pieces of art like Papa did,” Chloe said. “Building that Christmas village took construction skills as well. I would always watch him and help him.”
“As much as I love the final product of it, I definitely think the process of putting it together is the best. All the different levels and steps that it takes that you don’t even see in the final product – the foundation and forms and everything underneath. I like that aspect that it has those different levels and steps to putting our Christmas village together,” Chloe said.
“Me and my Nana did work together (this year) to do all the little finishing touches. It’s a lot to think about. You’re looking at it section by section. … It takes a lot of detail and a good creative eye,” Chloe said.
Like her grandfather, Chloe thinks big and hopes that she, her family and future generations will carry on the Christmas village. She wants to continue expanding the village, perhaps even doubling its size.
“I hope that I can make my Papa happy, and I hope I can carry on this tradition. I’m so honored he passed it on to me, and I hope I can keep making people happy when they see it. I hope I can do good for him,” Chloe said.
“It’s something everybody should get the opportunity to see. It’s so incredible,” she said. “This is cool we get to share this experience with the community.”
Mount calls this year’s “Christmas Town” event a passing of the torch to carry on Jeff’s longtime passion.
“A lot of men think of their legacy,” Mount said. “Finding the space, paying everybody … and making it something the public wants to see … that’s where my contribution comes in. … The legacy piece is the reason I did this.”
“The heart of this is a man who spent countless hours trying to perfect something that (will live on) beyond his time,” Mount said. “To me, that’s the most important thing.”