There’s something about miniature things that draws the eye of both kids and grown-ups. Perhaps that’s why parents, toddlers and preteens alike are found peering into the windows of the 10 mini houses that make up the annual Dickens Village hosted in downtown Maplewood, New Jersey each holiday season for more than 50 years.
Each of the 10 houses, measuring over 6-feet tall, are decorated with holiday scenes from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and are lit with pretty candles and bedecked in wreaths and other seasonal décor.
You’ll find faux fireplaces, a nutcracker, Santa, of course, and an entire house filled with vintage children’s toys. The windows are low enough for even my 1-year-old to look into. I was surprised by how enthralled he and his preschool sister were with the whole thing. Several preteens zipped through the village with us, oohing and ahhing over the scene: “My favorite is the candy cane one! You can fit a bed in here!”
The Dickens Village is sponsored by the Maplewood Village Alliance and each house is paid for and supported by local businesses and organizations. The houses must be restored each year, according to Julie Doran, manager of the alliance, but the effort pays off, drawing crowds to the small town. “We get people coming from New York City and off the train going through it,” says Doran.
And why not? It's a FREE, outdoor holiday activity that works for many ages.
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The houses look best at dusk or evening when the lights cast a festive glow.
The "village" is typically officially lit up over the Thanksgiving holiday, and the public can look into the windows and wander among them any day or night through the holiday season. The display usually stays up through the week after New Year's Day, says Ellen Davenport, an organizer for the annual tradition and a former mayor of the town. Heavy snow kept them up through March another year!
A local women's organization started the tradition five decades ago with just four or five houses, explained Davenport. New ones are added regularly and you'll now find Santa's house, the Cratchit house and Scrooge's house, among others.
The doors are unlocked for better viewing from 1-4pm on three Saturdays in December 2017: December 2, 9, 16. On those days you’ll find free kid activities like a visit with Santa and Mrs. Claus, a petting zoo, wagon rides, live reindeer, music, crafts and stories, and a tree lighting. Girl Scouts and Brownies act as docents, showing off the houses to visitors on these three Saturdays. A menorah lighting will take place on Monday, December 19.
The Dickens Village is right across from the Maplewood New Jersey Transit train station (a 40-minute ride from New York’s Penn Station), so it’s easy to get by public transit. The houses are located on a patch of grass in Ricalton Square, which is sandwiched between Maplewood Avenue (the main downtown drag) and the train. Find the full Dickens Village schedule of events on the Maplewood town site.
Windows are low enough for even toddlers to look in and enjoy this holiday scene.
If you’re day tripping to Maplewood, you’ll find plenty for families to do in town. Maplewood, which scooped up a New Jersey Monthly award for the best downtown in 2015 has a walkable main drag loaded with kid-friendly independent shops like Words bookshop, Toy Division, and baby and kids' clothes at Hopscotch. As a family town, most restaurants cater to the stroller crowd, but children favorites include the frozen treats at Strawberry Fields across the street from the Dickens Village and tacos at Cactus Charly (6 Highland Place). Don’t miss Able Baker’s lattes and scrumptious baked goods, and if you’re willing to wait on line, Arturo’s can impress even the most spoiled NYC palate with its farm-to-table ethos and wood-fired pizzas, charcuterie, fresh salads and soups.
If you’re driving, check out nearby South Orange, another family-friendly New Jersey town, which we recently profiled, or head to the Turtle Back Zoo, which is hosting its spectacular holiday lights. Kids will also enjoy a romp at the recently expanded Regatta, or “Pirate Ship” playground as the locals call it.
Looking for more small town holiday events? We’ve profiled a number of New Jersey’s best bets for families.
Each Dickens house is decorated in a different way. This one displays a sitting room with stockings hung from the mantle.
All photos by Mommy Poppins.
This article was first published in December 2015, but has since been updated.