ST. PETERSBURG — It started with two tiny houses, one with ghostly figures of Christmas past and present dancing inside.
Next came more houses, and stores and trees and trains and teensy skiers and carolers. Eventually an entire Christmas village, fully lit and animated, took over the garage of Bruce and Pat Harting’s waterfront St. Petersburg home. Neighbors would pause on their nightly walks, transfixed by the wondrous sight.
Then eight years ago, the mini metropolis moved — to a brewery started by the Hartings’ son Mike and his wife, Leigh. As 3 Daughters Brewing has grown in renown, so has the size of Mike’s parents’ Christmas display.
“You’ve got the North Pole up here,” Bruce Harting says, pointing to an animated Santa’s Mailbox, “and people shopping down here.” In all there are six trains, 341 houses and other pieces (89 of which are animated) and more than 380 people.
Each year in October, the Hartings start assembling the display, which now covers several long sheets of plywood and runs along two sides of the brewery in the Warehouse Arts District. It takes until mid-November to finish what has become a popular draw, especially with harried parents who can enjoy a brew or two while their offspring ooh and ahh over the chugging trains, revolving carousels and rising hot air balloons
Bruce Harting’s favorite piece remains the Scrooge house with ghosts that his mother gave him in 1986. It was made by Department 56, a Minnesota company known for its ceramic buildings and other holiday decorations. As Department 56 items became increasingly expensive, Harting turned to Lemax products, which are sold at Michaels, and whatever he can get from eBay and other sources. A retired Army lieutenant colonel, he finances the display with what he makes as referee for local soccer teams.
Christmas buffs are eager to help. Dave Zitnik, who has a model train store in Pinellas Park, comes every Friday to lend a hand with the trains. This year, for the first time, there will be two trains running on the same track. Another volunteer made a mini replica of the massive brew house. And a friend from St. Louis contributed a little team of Clydesdales hauling a wagon full of beer barrels.
“It had Budweiser on the side,” Harting said, “but that doesn’t work so I painted it and put 3 Daughters on it.”
The Christmas village grew even larger this year with the addition of an entire circus. Harting consulted with circus experts on the tiger cages, “human cannonball” and other elements of the Big Top. His wife spent hours gluing down the tiny people, some posed to look like they’re chatting with each other, who sit on bleachers watching the circus parade.
Also new is an interactive feature: a big red button that starts the trains. ”You can see the kids waiting for them to stop so they can run them again,” Harting said.
The couple met at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where she was working and he was visiting a friend who had been seriously wounded in Vietnam and later died — their son is named after the friend. The Hartings also have a daughter, Becky, and five grandchildren — Mike’s three daughters and Becky’s son and daughter.
The Christmas village stays up through the first week in January, then most of it is shrink-wrapped and deposited by forklift on the big refrigeration unit at the back of 3 Daughters. The Hartings take home a few sections to work on throughout the year.
As for Mike Harting, he likes the business the village brings, but made it clear who is responsible for upkeep.
“Dad, I’m not doing it,” he told his father. “I’ve got a brewery to run.”
3 Daughters Brewing, 222 22nd St. S, St. Petersburg, opens at 11:30 a.m. daily. Closing hours vary. Check the website at 3dbrewing.com. 727-495-6002.