For the Douglas clan of Nottingham, the most magical time of the year doesn't start until they spend a morning oohing and ahhing their way through the aisles of the glittering winter wonderland that is the annual Christmas display and sale at Valley View Farms in Cockeysville.
For more than 40 years, employees at the popular garden and nursery center have started as early as the summer to transform its interior into a holiday cavalcade, including aisle upon aisle of ornaments from around the world, heavily laden trees as tall as 12 feet, and shelves of gifts that range from $400, hand-carved German nutcrackers to $19 stockings festooned with crabs.
The holiday season accounts for nearly 25 percent of the nursery's annual sales, said Kathy Foard, who has been the Christmas shop manager for 25 years. And it's one of the best-known holiday displays in the American garden center industry, according to Robert Hendrickson, president of the Garden Center Group, an Ellicott City-based consulting firm that tracks trends in the field.
"When I moved to Maryland in 1984, the word even then was, 'You've got to see Valley View's Christmas.' They're known in the industry as being extremely serious about the holiday season," said Hendrickson, who takes his family there every year they're in town.
"It's just an absolutely unique experience," said John Douglas, 67, who has visited the place with his wife, Judy, and their two daughters nearly every year since the family moved to Maryland in 1985. "It's almost overwhelming, but it has always been fun. To us, it means Christmas."
His daughter Heather Douglas, now 29, can't remember a holiday season that didn't involve a visit and at least one purchase.
"We have so many ornaments from here we can't get them all on the tree," she said. "It always gets the holiday spirit going."
A spectacle that has become something of a local tradition got started small. So did the business itself.
Two local brothers, Billy and John "Punkey" Foard, started Valley View Farms as a produce stand in the spring of 1962. Over the next few years, it slowly grew into a full-service garden center. Kathy Foard met Punkey there and married him.
Sometime in the early 1970s, a couple from Roland Park, the Whitehursts, approached the owners with a proposition. They had a home business that imported ornaments from Germany, their native country, and promised the Foards that if Valley View would let them sell the decorations during the Christmas holidays, they'd sell out.
They were as good as their word, and the Foards, who already knew they needed a way to get through their annual winter sales lull, decided there was something to this Christmas market. By 1975, the owners were attending craft and gift conventions around the country well in advance of the season, acquiring more and more Yuletide paraphernalia to display and sell from mid-October on.
At Valley View, it takes a Santa's village to make the season happen. More than 30 employees begin pitching in as early as August to start the gradual migration of garden supply products from the store to the storage buildings out back and replacing them with one seasonal goodie after another.
That's about when workers set up scaffolds so they can hang the overhead canopy of about 60,000 lights — 129 winding metal tree branches, each fashioned by Valley View mechanic Mike Glantz and entwined with more than 400 twinkling Christmas bulbs.
The team then installs the International Christmas Shop — Italian Nativity scenes, Uzbekistanian painted ornaments, German incense holders — and quietly begins spreading the new wares from the front of the building to the back.
The holiday display is intact by mid-October — early enough, Foard said, that the customers who come in to pick up pumpkins for Halloween get an early reminder of the coming Yule season.
One key member of the transition team is garden shop manager John Hessler, a 37-year store veteran. His role is to start sneaking holiday village displays in during the summer — first the Dickens village, with its carolers, taverns and Bob Cratchit figurines, then the North Pole, then the animated scenes featuring skaters on ponds and skiers coming down mountainsides.
"I really, really enjoy this part of the job — it's a right-brain project, organizing and arranging the layouts as the pieces come in," he said.
About 130 fully decorated trees are on display, each of whose ornaments define a theme. Some are traditional: a "Kriss Kringle" tree displays a variety of Santas. Many are beautiful: a bird tree sports species made of glass, feathers and buri palm. Some are downright funny, including "Man Cave" (beer kegs and grills) and "Girls' Night Out" (cocktail glasses and high-heeled shoes).
"People just ask for things that define them. ... One lady came in here looking for a chipmunk ornament last week. I'm not sure why. We found one on the 'animal' tree," Foard said.
One family posed for photographs in front of a tree. Bill and Diane Radcliffe of Perry Hall have made a tradition of coming to Valley View for three decades, buying something every year, and the 7-month-old they held was their grandson, Benjamin.
"It's wonderful to pass this on," Diane said.