HARLINGEN — Clack, clack, clackety-clack, slowly the train went down the track.
The toy train at Judy Haedtke’s Christmas House rolled past a church with stained glass, a gazebo surrounded by musicians, horses pulling a sleigh and numerous other figurines lined up on a ledge.
“This is Santa’s Play House,” Haedtke said with a broad smile.
She’d set up this particular room at her home in Palm Gardens to serve as the theme for Santa’s Play House. All the rooms in her home, including the bathroom, had a Christmas theme.
Palm Gardens has had a “Christmas House” filled with decorations for years. Park residents were welcome to tour the home and enjoy the decoration. However, the resident who had opened her home as the Christmas House in years past is ill and unable to continue the tradition.
That’s when Haedtke decided to offer her home as a Christmas House.
“I wanted to continue the tradition of the Christmas House, so I took the opportunity,” she said, giving special thanks to Carol Vierke for helping her.
By Thursday afternoon she’d had about 50 visitors and was expecting more.
“This is the Old Fashioned Christmas and Santa theme,” she said as she stepped through the front door.
A small company stood ready to greet visitors. Many wore the customary white beard which rolled across their red vests.
One, however, wore a maroon jacket with a morass of stringy hair flying in all directions. Mrs. Claus sat quietly in a small chair.
“I have been collecting these Santas for several years,” Haedtke said. “I like to celebrate Christmas because it’s the season of the birth of our Lord and Santa Claus just brings joy to everyone. Some of the Santas I just picked up along the way. Others I got when I was teaching school. I got them as gifts. Different Santas just appeal to me.”
Another display presented a very different take on the Santa theme, and it had a very different story.
“These are different Santas from around the world that my mother collected,” she said.
The line of ceramic Santas stood on a small shelf beneath her television. Each stood on a base naming their country of origin, including France, Spain, Germany, Portugal and Mexico.
The Santa from Sweden had special meaning.
“My grandparent on my mother’s side came from Sweden,” she said.
Next came a Nativity Scene. Figurines of animals and people seemed to spread out from the manger looking in awe at the Baby Jesus.
“This is 56 years old,” Haedtke said. “My youngest daughter when she was two and three years old used to take the Baby Jesus with her to bed because she didn’t want him to get cold.”
In the Snowman Room, white figures crowded a small table as if gathering for a party. One with arms out wide as if greeting the season wore a round black hat and a red jacket. Another wore ear muffs, and a “snow dog” sat near its master with a red scarf around its neck. One snow man was lit from within.
At one point she introduced Misty, her Australian shepherd, who happily greeted visitors, even more so when Haedtke played a recording of “Jingle Bells.”
“Wooooh! Woooh!” Misty sang with the music while the Snowmen looked on.
There were numerous other rooms, each with a different theme, a different purpose, a different message, all in the name of Christmas.
Ultimately the tour ended where the train ran along the tracks, past quaint houses with warm windows, a carousel, a light house, and a horse pulling a wagon with a Christmas tree.
“This is Babes in Toyland” Haedtke said.
A rocking chair with stuffed bears said it all. Each was clad in the clothing worn by her grandchildren when they were babies. One wore the striped bib of her grandson Trenton, now 14, another wore the clothing of her 17-year-old granddaughter Tiffany.
And the third wore the light blue garment of Thaddeus. He died at age four months, but he still commands a prominent place in the room called “Babes in Toyland” as well as the memories of everyone who knew him.