Office wonderland: Official helps build holiday spirit
Updated 2:00 pm, Thursday, December 15, 2011
Around Thanksgiving weekend each year, town Building Official James Gilleran turns into one of Santa's elves, and his department on the second floor of Sullivan-Independence Hall is transformed into a mini Christmas Village.
"Christmas was always a big deal growing up," Gilleran said. "With four kids in the house, my mother was always into Christmas."
She passed that holiday spirit on to her son, who spends a few nights and weekends hanging mobiles in the office, setting up not just a train set but also a subway and all kinds of stuffed critters that sing and talk. Oh, and there's also a life-size Santa.
"It started with one mobile and a little Christmas tree," Gilleran said. He bought that first mobile -- Santa in plane -- at a store in Cape Cod, called Captain's Closet. "After I bought it, the company went out of business. The rest, there are 14 in all, were purchased by Gilleran on eBay.
The life-sized Santa was given to the cause by co-worker Ray Corby. "I was at a friend's wedding in Vermont," Corby said. "I was at some Christmas shop and I walked by it and it dancing. I said, `I have to have it.' "
But even with Santa, some mobiles and a small tree, there was something missing. "I said we've got to have train set," Gilleran said. He started out with a small "Classic Holiday Train Set" from Restoration Hardware. "It was a little battery-operated train set that went around the bottom of the tree."
Then, he said, the train set grew just a bit, and now it traverses some shelves and Corby's cubicle. "It was the only place to put them," Gilleran said.
There are backdrops of buildings for the train, and the subway runs to -- where else -- Bedford Falls, the setting of the classic Christmas movie, "It's a Wonderful Life." The Bedford Falls tableau includes images from the holiday movie such as the bridge; Clarence, the angel whose job is to convince George Bailey that his life is worth living, and the bar, Martini's, where Bailey tries to drown his sorrows.
Gilleran even bought a complete porcelain Christmas village from another co-worker, but it's still in boxes. "I don't even have room to put it up," he said.
The furry toys that sing or dance or chatter line a shelf below the subway. "Everytime we'd walk into a CVS, whichever one made the most noise, we'd buy it," Gilleran said. "A couple of times, I'll start them all at the same time."
There was even once a big singing polar bear, accompanied by three penguins singing back up, Corby said, but it eventually stopped working. "They wanted me to replace it," Gilleran said, but after checking online, he decided he was not going to shell out the $350 to buy a new one. "I said there will be no polar bear and penguins," he said.
There is even a fireplace mantle, where stockings for Building Department employees are hung. The department for some time had a paper fireplace tacked to the wall, Gilleran said, until another friend of his decided he needed a "real" fireplace. "He went home and in one night built a mantle out of wood," Gilleran said. That friend, Jerry Ford, now has a stocking of his own hanging from the mantle.
The decorations have become so well known, Gilleran said, that people who don't have any business with the department will make a trip just to see them.
The trains are Gilleran's favorite part of the holiday display, but for his secretary Carolyn Daruka, it's the people who come to see the decorations.
Daruka, who sits at the office counter, said, "The smiles of the people when they walk up to the counter ... It is a treat to see people enjoying it."
It doesn't stop at decorations for the Building Department, however. Gilleran said he'll set up a computer monitor at the counter so contractors and residents coming in for permits can watch favorites like "A Christmas Story" while they wait.
And a few days before Christmas Gilleran brings in sandwiches and cookies and invites employees from both Sullivan-Independence and old Town halls to come over for a little holiday party.