At Department 56, it all begins with a story: A young couple celebrating the purchase of their first home, an iconic toy store ready to amaze and delight customers with a magical experience, a little boy who simply wants a Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle for Christmas. These are the stories that Christmas village collectors can’t get enough of, and many of these stories originate at the Department 56 headquarters in Eden Prairie.
“Every house has a story,” said Rick Jackson, managing director of product development for Department 56. “We get the piece — the story — out there, and (the collectors) can write the next chapter.”
With a bird’s eye view of the future light rail line in Eden Prairie, a close-knit crew of 13 works year-round to carefully and thoughtfully expand their giftware line, which includes Snowbabies, Possible Dreams Santa figurines and those fantastically intricate village pieces. “The people just love it,” said Jackson. “They’re always wowed by it.”
“We wouldn’t be where we are today without the passion of collectors.”
A division of Bachman’s
Department 56’s story began in Minneapolis in 1976 when it was a part of Bachman’s. Bachman’s identified each of its departments by number, and wholesale gift imports was assigned number 56.
That first year, Bachman’s department 56 released six ceramic, lighted buildings. Those buildings would become the foundation for Department 56’s collection called “The Original Snow Village.”
Nearly 47 years later, Department 56 continues to nurture and grow four core Christmas village collections along with a handful of Halloween villages and a dozen or so licensed product lines. The company is now owned by Enesco, LLC, out of Itasca, Illinois, though it remains headquartered in Eden Prairie as it has been since 1991.
Jackson has been with Department 56 for 25 years. “I’d say the average seniority here is 20 years,” he said.
It is that continuity, knowledge and experience that continues to drive the company’s success. “Everybody’s in on it and they want it to be the best house,” said Jackson.
Each year, the team sits down to discuss potential additions to the catalog. Jackson said they strive to create a balance with their offerings, understanding that the price point of their pieces makes them an investment for many. They try to make sure there are always new pieces to add to the collection without putting out so many that collectors have to pick and choose what they can afford to add.
The average village piece takes about six months from idea to completion. Each piece is hand drawn by Department 56 artists, and models are sculpted using hand tools. When a piece gets final approval, it is sent out for molding, allowing it to eventually be produced in higher quantities. (You can learn more about the entire Department 56 process here.)
Jackson said they have been working with the same family-run factory out of China for the last four decades. “A big part of our success is having that relationship,” he said.
“We’re designing stuff that is pushing the factory,” Jackson added, noting that they seem to enjoy the challenge. “They appreciate that these are not easy things to make.”
Based on sales, collectors seem to appreciate that, too. With the support of collectors, Department 56 has withstood bankruptcy, the Great Recession and a global pandemic.
“We’ve had really great sales growth,” said Jackson.
Among their most popular pieces is the Griswold Holiday House from the movie “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” “It outsells double the next Snow Village best seller,” said Jackson.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is one of Department 56’s licensed brands. Other licensed brands include Harry Potter, Dr. Seuss’s The Grinch, A Christmas Story, Peanuts, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Disney’s Mickey Mouse, plus Halloween-themed Elvira and Ghostbusters lines.
Department 56’s four original core villages include Snow Village, Christmas in the City, North Pole and Dickens’ Village, which contains Jackson’s favorite new addition for 2022: the Rooster Inn.
“I already know that’s going to push out one of my other buildings,” said Jackson.
Fabulous at 50
Though collectors go wild for many of their pieces, not all Department 56 lines are successful. In recent years, they launched a series of intricate Game of Thrones pieces that failed to perform at market. “That was a surprise,” said Jackson.
But with more successes than failures, Department 56 continues to plan for the future. The 2023 catalog will make its debut early next year, and the team just finished up plans for 2024. “We try to stay 1-2 years ahead,” explained Jackson. “Especially with all the backups of the last couple years.”
Jackson is already looking ahead to 2026, when Department 56 will celebrate 50 years. “We’re so thankful for 50 years,” he said.
And they’re thankful for the avid collectors that have made 50 years possible. Jackson said they love to attend conventions and hear stories about how their pieces have become part of people’s lives and homes.
“One collector had an entire addition created to house their North Pole room,” said Jackson.
And new collectors are joining the club all the time. “The biggest warm and fuzzy we get is when a kid comes up with a picture of a village house that they drew,” said Jackson. “We just love it.”
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