FRENCH SETTLEMENT -- It all began with a schoolhouse and a church.
Those were the pieces that started this obsession for Rev. Jason Palermo — a pair of embroidered miniature buildings his aunt made him because he wanted a Christmas Village “just like hers.”
The schoolhouse and church are still there, each year displayed in a different spot inside this 28-foot-by-40-foot room — a room that needed additional space to keep up with Palermo’s increasing collection.
And it’s quite the collection.
Twenty-seven years after his aunt’s gift, Palermo’s own Christmas Village has grown to more than 700 individual pieces collected from all over the world, all powered by more than a mile’s worth of electrical wiring.
Palermo, the lead pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in French Settlement, adds more pieces to the display every year — but only him, he said with a sly smile.
“I’m pretty picky about what goes in here,” he confessed.
The final result, as one woman said while gazing at a collection of houses and buildings in a miniature New England countryside, is always the same.
“Beautiful,” the woman said. “Absolutely gorgeous.”
That’s the most common reaction to Palermo’s model Christmas Village, a stunning holiday display of famous landmarks such as Disney World, London and New York City that was once again the talk of the town during St. Joseph’s Annual Winter Wonderland Food Festival.
The day-long festival was held Sunday, Dec. 3, and featured a sweet shop with homemade candy, cakes and cookies, as well as more than 40 craft booths with local artists and vendors selling paintings, jewelry, wreaths, sports memorabilia, gift baskets, wood work and more.
The food line was back in action and served up a wide selection of local favorites to ticket buyers, including chicken and andouille gumbo, seafood pistolettes and gumbo, fried fish, jambalaya and pastalaya, and other more agreeable dishes for even the pickiest of eaters.
“We’re the backup crew,” joked volunteer Larry Cornett as he and Don Gaudet stood in front of a full grill of hamburgers.
The festival, which has been one of St. Joseph’s biggest fundraisers for 10 years running, included hayrides for children, music, door prizes, a classic car and truck show that drew nearly 100 vehicles, and a light parade to cap the night.
But at almost all points during the day, you were bound to find a throng of people packed into the room housing Father Jason’s Christmas Village — an eye-popping winter wonderland comprised of miniature train sets, amusement park rides, well-known landmarks, houses and buildings, all placed on ascending rows of tables draped in white sheets.
“It’s definitely a labor of love,” Palermo said while changing the batteries on one of his half-dozen or so train sets.
Palermo said he starts “getting the itch” to build the Christmas Village around July. But because of his busy schedule, Palermo said he wasn’t able to get started on this year’s display until Oct. 1, when he, his mother Yvonne, his godmother Judy Chustz and others began piecing together the various displays.
But putting it together is the easy part, Palermo said.
“It’s harder for me to take it down than put it up,” he joked. “I get excited about putting it up every year.”
Like every year, this year’s Christmas Village featured a few noticeable additions.
“Some of the new pieces this year are an ‘Avatar’ scene and an aquarium scene we added to Epcot,” Palermo said. “We also added 25 pieces to London, so London is much bigger this year. We added the Jack Daniels distillery, [and] Dairy Queen is also new this year. We also added the Lincoln Park skating pond and Woolworth’s.”
After introducing it least year, Palermo brought back Magic Kingdom’s “Happily Ever After” fireworks show, which was again projected on a dark blue felt sheet behind the miniature replica of Disney World.
Other attention-getters were Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the Hollywood Tower, the Statue of Liberty, and London’s Big Ben clock tower, among other sights.
Yvonne, who sat in a chair and greeted visitors as they entered the exhibit, can still remember when her son’s now-legendary Christmas Village first began.
“It was just a schoolhouse and a church, put right on the floor in my house,” she recalled.
Now, the Christmas Village has taken on a life of its own as Palermo continues adding to his collection, always planning for the next year’s display. However, that can sometimes create quite the dilemma, he said.
“I just have to figure out where to put stuff,” Palermo said with a laugh. “And that’s always the issue — it’s more stuff but the same amount of space.”
Palermo said the Christmas Village will be open through Jan. 20 and that people can call the church office to make an appointment to visit. Palermo, who tries to lead as many tours as his schedule allows, estimates that the exhibit draws about 3,000 visitors a year, all coming from different parts of Livingston Parish and south Louisiana.
Some people return every year just to see what Palermo has added.
“It just gets bigger and bigger,” one woman said.
For more information, call the church at (225) 698-3110. Church office hours are 8 a.m. - 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 8 a.m. - noon on Friday.
St. Joseph Catholic Church is located at 15710 La. Hwy. 16 in French Settlement.