Father Christmas Traditions

by Carol Masiello

     At this busy time of year, step back in time for a moment to indulge yourself with something really special. Get away from the crowded malls filled with the "same old, same old", and journey to a spot that delights your senses and could even create family traditions for generations to come! A very special place in the Blackstone Valley is Sutton’s Vaillancourt Folk Art with its timeless, handpainted treasures .

    When you enter the showroom you quickly feel like a child again, remembering the holiday seasons that filled you with wonder. Hand painted chalkware Santas, made from antique chocolate and ice cream molds, line the shelves and catch your eyes as well as your imagination. Set right off of Route 146, their accessible location allows for a quick visit or a more involved look back into history with its global holiday traditions changing throughout the centuries. You can also experience fine art and crafts from local artisans and artists that grace the attractive rooms.

     Judy and Gary Vaillancourt have incorporated their passion for history into all their business ventures. Always in love with old things, they enjoyed the resurgence of interest in old homes and classic handcrafts that came with the bi-centennial in 1976. The husband and wife team purchased old homes, disassembled them and re-built them at new locations. Judi jokes that they always seemed to buy the houses when the market was high and the market would slump just when they were ready to sell. 

     Their interest of collecting old treasures led Gary to give Judi a gift of three antique chocolate Santa molds for her birthday. Chocolate figures in the eighteen hundreds were not like the dollar chocolate bunnies we buy in Wal-Mart today. Mold makers were carefully trained artisans, and the molded chocolate figures were detailed works of art. Most of the metal molds were made in Germany and were in use from the late 1800's till 1950. Every town at the time had at least one chocolate maker, and their creations were a highly prized gift. Often, this was the sole gift given at Christmas and certainly very treasured.

    The molds represent more than just formed metal; Gary stated how the molds reflect the changing look of Father Christmas over the years. In the beginning, Saint Nicholas gave out toys to good children and his opposite, a devil, administered punishments to bad children. (The mold for the devil is complete with the chains he used to take bad girls to Spain to pick oranges) The changing look of Father Christmas and his assistants can be seen in the changing molds. The miter of Saint Nicholas disappears and the familiar look of Father Christmas begins to take shape. The devil is replaced by elves that carry a switch to punished bad children. As the years go by, Father Christmas looks more like the jolly fellow we know and the elves now carry a bag of presents. Judi has over 3,000 chocolate molds in addition to antique pewter ice cream molds. She has researched the history of all the molds, often using the original catalogue the molds were listed in to fill in the tradition and story.
Because of her art training, Judi wanted to do more than just display this history on a shelf where all they would do is collect dust. The molds were exquisite works of art in their own right, so she attempted to create a new art form with them. Her first attempts were less than successful. First, she tried filling the molds with chocolate, then bees-wax (the remains of that experiment is still in the fridge). Then finally she tried a plaster-like compound. What came out of the mold was a beautiful chalkware creation that just begged to have the touch of Judi's paintbrush. Following the details in the molds, figurines emerged from the plain white chalkware that had depth of character and "old world" beauty. 

In October of 1984, armed with a few of her creations, Judi and Gary attended a folk art show and much to their surprise, they sold all the pieces. The rest, as they say, is history. Originally working out of their house, the business was growing so fast, they needed more space. The studio moved into its present location in 1987 inside an historic circa 1842 house. Here they could achieve the goal of doing more than just display history on a shelf; the Vaillancourt's have brought it back to life. 

The second floor of the historic house is where the magic takes place. The process to create a chalkware figure is slow and labor intensive, but the end result is truly worth it. Molds are assembled and the plaster is poured in, drying time depends on how large the mold is. When dry, they go to a table where the excess plaster is scrapped off, little air holes are filled in and the piece is smoothed out by two workers. Then they go into a drying room to completely dry before being painted. 

Painting is a multi-layer pro-cess done with oil paints. When the painting is done, they are "antiqued" for the old look. There are no mass production runs of 20,000 pieces here; the average run is 100-200 with a rare one of 500, all made one by one. While the Santa’s and Father Christmas's are what they are best known for, you can find snowmen, angels, bunnies, hens and other pieces. An exciting compliment to the use of the historic molds is the addition of glass ornaments. Glass molds, adapted from the chocolate ones, are sent to Germany where glass duplicates of the chalk figures are made. The ornaments are then brought back to Sutton for hand painting. 

     Gary and Judy, have branched out to reach a broader clientele base. They are on the web, do national tours, have received much acclaim for their work and are involved in several local projects. One such project is a chalkware architectural series depicting historic buildings including Millbury National Bank and Salisbury Mansion. They have a strong connection to Sutton and show this by holding various community days at the showroom. Two of the more popular ones are Halloween, (when children enjoy bobbing for apples), and the Sutton Chain of Lights on December 4th. 

Passionate about her art and her town, Judi has committed immense time over the past five years collecting, cataloguing and preparing the incredible “Tell-Tale Treasures", an exhibit held for Sutton’s 300th Anniversary year. Judi has also designed a commemorative chalkware Santa in honor of Sutton's anniversary and his sack is filled with town history books and mementos. 

     Thanks to people like Gary and Judi Vaillancourt, the heritage of the Blackstone Valley continues to be innovative and industrious whilemaintaining its unique culture. So take some time away from your busy life and explore what is so special about this little part of the world. You might end up starting a special tradition from centuries past for your children that lasts for many generations to come!