The sounds of clunky mechanical movements mixed with Christmas music emanate from the corner gallery at the Western Development Museum.
Animatronic carolers move their heads back and forth while elves hammer endlessly in Santa’s workshop in jerky robotic gestures.
The Eaton’s Once Upon a Christmas display has been pleasing and creeping out crowds for generations.
“Some people come in here and they’re enthralled. They think it’s just so Christmasy and it gets them into the spirit,” museum manager Jason Wall said. “Other people come in here and are totally creeped out by it.”
The pieces, which include the story of Santa Claus, a traditional Christmas story and several nursery rhymes, were donated to the museum in 1987, but they first appeared in Eaton’s Department Store display windows across Canada in 1946.
Because their construction came so soon after the end of the Second World War, most of the moving parts were taken from former bombers and military planes.
“Pounding swords into plowshares,” Wall said. “You have all this equipment that was used in World War II and now it’s being used to celebrate Christmas.”
Over the years the museum has also put its personal touches on the displays. Dresses for the sewing dolls display were made by museum volunteers while Santa’s list of children includes the names of former museum staff.
The display was also brought into the modern age by the addition of motion censors which activate the mechanics and sounds. It takes staff a week to set everything up.
Despite upgrades, maintaining the original mechanics can be a challenge.
“I can’t go out anymore and find a Lancaster bomber to get the servos that I need to make a display work,” Wall said.
Donations placed in a mailbox near the display go towards maintaining its original look and workings. Wall said they hope to keep the display alive as long as they can.
“You don’t see anything near this scale anymore in the department stores. It’s a time gone by of course, but I think it’s kind of sad,” he said.
The museum usually leaves the display up until after Ukrainian Orthodox Christmas, which falls on Jan. 7.