What's a missile doing in the middle of Santa's North Pole home?
That's what Jerry Green wondered as he laid out the plans for the first-ever Christmas Village to grace the grounds of Ogden's Municipal Gardens in 1962.
How to "disguise" the 70-foot-tall Minuteman missile was the best "horror" story with a happy ending to come out of the village's creation, recalls Green's widow, Maxine, of Castro Valley, Calif.
The missile, a permanent fixture in the park to honor a Promontory missile manufacturer, was eventually transformed into a giant Christmas tree with strands of lights running from its top to the ground, Maxine Green recalled in a phone interview.
Today, the infamous "Missile Tree" is long gone, but Christmas Village still shines bright as it opens for its 50th season on Saturday.
If her husband, who passed away in 2009, were still alive, he would definitely have something planned to mark the golden anniversary. "He was already thinking about it," says Maxine Green.
"Christmas Village was one of the highlights of his life to do," says the designer, who did the original drawings of the village.
As Jerry Green explained in a 2002 letter to the editor, creating the attraction was "a labor of love and joy for the little children and their parents who saw the magic of Santa and his village. It is a feel-good story that touches all of our hearts."
Riding the rails
That first Christmas Village boasted just six or seven decorated cottages; today, there are about 60, says village chairman Jo Packham.
This year, a train -- a miniature Polar Express -- is being added to mark the 50th celebration of the village's first setup, says Packham. Painted metallic midnight blue, the train includes a locomotive, five cars and a caboose. It is built on a scale of 1 1/2 inches to 1 foot, and can carry about 30 passengers.
Since all of the other park displays are static, Packham says, "I wanted something movable, something that would carry the kids."
The train will run on a portable oval track and was built by the South Weber Model Railroad Club, says president Scott Stowell of Clinton.
Everyone loves trains at Christmas time, Stowell says, and this permanent addition to the village is even better because "you actually get to ride on it."
Santa comes to town
The origin of Christmas Village goes back to 1961, when the Greens took their then-5-year-old son to see a downtown parade for Santa Claus' arrival in Ogden.
"It was one of those terrible cold nights that no one wants to be out," Maxine Green says, and finally, after waiting and waiting, a flat-bed truck raced past with Santa waving to the children.
"It was all over in about 15 seconds. If you didn't look quickly, you would never have seen Santa," Jerry Green wrote in his 2002 history of the village's founding.
And Maxine Green recalls little Tommy asking, "Is that all there is?"
The 5-year-old was disappointed, but so was his father. Jerry Green went to bed that night thinking about how the experience could be improved and had what he called his "Christmas Village Dream."
His vision was to create a North Pole village full of toy and candy shops and a castle for Santa. And the perfect location would be Ogden's Municipal Gardens, on 25th Street and Washington Boulevard.
As head of the Chamber of Commerce's retail merchants committee, Jerry Green got backing for his idea from that committee and other city officials. Over the next year, community groups and hundreds of volunteers worked to turn the dream into a reality.
The lights were first turned on at Christmas Village on Nov. 23, 1962. For Tommy -- who got to ride on a float in the 45-entry parade -- bringing the holiday wonderland to life was "a promise kept," his father wrote.
No time to test
That first year, the castle and cottages were designed to be floats in the parade, which was held during the afternoon, before the village lighting ceremony.
"The little cottages would go down the route and land in Christmas Village and stay there," says Craig Bielik, a member of the village planning committee.
About five of the original cottages still exist, including the toy shop, Packham says, but all were rebuilt 10 years ago because they had fallen into disrepair.
Maxine Green says the "Missile Tree" shorted out during its test run before the original village's opening. The day of the event, volunteers spent hours unscrewing the 8,000-plus light bulbs and putting them back in their sockets with rubber washers.
There was no time to try the tree out again before the official opening, she recalls, so Jerry Green jokingly said, "If it doesn't light up, I'm going to run as fast as I can run."
But light up, it did, setting the tree and park ablaze in a "fairyland of lights," as reported in a local newspaper article.
The village has remained a holiday tradition. "The only change is that it's just continued to grow and get bigger," says Packham, who finishes her 10-year stint as chairman this year.
During her tenure, dozens of cottages have been added, including numerous replicas of community landmarks such as Union Station and the Eccles Community Art Center.
Work on the display begins in October when city workers start painting and repairing the cottages in their Ogden storage warehouse. Although Perry Huffaker says he "can't even begin to guess" how many lights are hung on trees and bushes, it takes a crew of 15 people four solid weeks to put them all up.
"It is a huge task," says the public ways and parks manager.
One new cottage will be added this year, bringing the committee closer to its goal of spreading the village throughout the entire park, Packham says.
"We wanted it to be so big, you had to come down more than one night (to see it all)," she explains.
Little Tommy is now 54 and living in San Leandro, Calif., with grown children of his own who have come to Utah to visit Christmas Village. In December 2009, the whole family strolled through the village on the night before Jerry Green's funeral.
"There was snow on the ground and it was just a beautiful night and a choice celebration to remember Jerry, to remember Grandpa," says Maxine Green.
The family focus of the village is why it has endured for 50 years, the widow says, adding, "It ended up parents took their children, and those children took their children, and it just kept going."
All of the buildings and lights are great, but the village itself is about capturing the heart of Christmas, Maxine Green adds.
The village will continue to change and evolve during the next 50 years, she says, "But not the reason for Christmas -- that will never change. As long as people keep that in their hearts, that will be good."