My grandfather, George Mahaffey Paterson Baird (better known as "Grandy" to us grandchildren) was good at a lot of things. He painted, wrote plays, taught drama, was a city planner for Pittsburgh, and wrote the words to the University of Pittsburgh's school song... and he built toys.
Grandy started off building little models of the stage sets for his plays. They were about a cubic foot in size—miniature scenes of waiting rooms and middle eastern courtyards and fields of wheat and more. They had little people and furniture and were carefully lit by tiny light bulbs so they looked very real. He built a dozen or more. I used to spend a long time just looking at them and imagining what was going in the tiny worlds in those boxes.
And finally he built the Christmas Box. It was bigger than the play scenes—almost two feet by two feet. And it wasn't just lit, it was motorized. Inside its big dark green base was an odd collection of gears and pulleys driven by an old Erector Set motor. What did the machinery do? I'll get to that in a minute.
When you turned on the Christmas Box, you saw a scene in a children's playroom. These were lucky children—probably their parents had a lot of money—because there were lots and lots of toys. All around the room were dolls and paint sets and blocks and toy cars and every other kind of toy. Grandy made all these things, and painted them—the dolls were only an inch high!
In the left wall was a fireplace with a cheerfully glowing fire, and two stockings hanging from the mantel. Through the picture window in the far wall you could see the glowing lights of the houses across the street, their roofs covered with snow...and a full moon, looking like a big pearl button (because it wasa pearl button!)...and snow blowing past (that was part of the motorized stuff). And best of all, when you switched off the ceiling light in the playroom, you could see Santa Claus and his eight reindeer ride past in the night sky!
If you turned on the lights again, you'd see in one corner of the room two children in their pajamas, about to go to bed. But as the Christmas Box's motor hummed and rumbled, suddenly the corner would revolve—and you'd see Santa (a small, elf-sized Santa) hanging decorations on a tree with presents heaped around it. You'd barely glimpse all this when zip! the corner would revolve again and there would be the two sleepy children.
Underneath the whole scene, in Grandy's fancy old-fashioned lettering, were the words "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" from the famous poem, lit from inside the box.
Every Christmas my family got out the Christmas Box and we kids were allowed to look at it and play with it. After Grandy died twenty years ago, I got the box. Every year now I get it out and show it to my friends, big and small. Almost every year I add something to it. One year I added a shiny new radiator that I carved from balsa wood. Another year I put in some tiny red light bulbs in the fireplace to give it a cheery glow. And someday I hope to put some fish in that aquarium that sits on the table. I like to carry on in Grandy's footsteps, making little improvements here and there as he did.
The Christmas Box was built in 1936. I took these pictures of it in 2000. You'll have to use your imagination to see the revolving corner, and Santa riding by outside the window. See how many toys you can spot: there are alphabet blocks, a wooden soldier, two dolls (one has a green dress, and one is in her bed with a blue coverlet), Noah's Ark, a watercolor paint set, a black horse on wheels with a red saddle, an aquarium, a blue and yellow ball...
I hope you like the Christmas Box. Merry Christmas from Grandy and me!
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