This Christmas season — like every other — my soon-to-be-mother-in-law’s house will welcome roughly 150 very merry visitors. It’s no bother: No taller than a foot, they squeeze in on bookshelves and side tables, gaggles of them gathered in so many places that you expect to open a medicine cabinet and find yet another festive little face staring back at you.
They’re called Byers’ Choice Carolers: Byers for the family that makes them; carolers because they look to be forever singing Glorias, mouths in neat O’s (a characteristic that has for years inspired my betrothed and his brothers to pose them in decidedly un-Christmasy scenarios). Something in the carolers’ cherubic faces, their lavish costumes, their variety, has spawned a cultish following and made the Byerses craft-heroes of epic proportions. “I might need a new house for my Byer carolers,” bubbles one of Byers’s 1,095 Facebook fans. “How many carolers do you have?” asks another, eager to compare. (She has 120.)
The frenzy began in King of Prussia in the late ’60s. Joyce Byers hated the era’s trendy aluminum and frosted Christmas decor, so the young mom — a Drexel-trained clothing designer — crafted decorative carolers out of wire hangers, tissue paper, paint and plaster. After friends showered compliments on the results, she made them as gifts. That grew into selling them at Wayne’s Woman’s Exchange and New York gift shows, which finally grew, in 1978, into Byers’ Choice — a company Joyce and her husband, Bob, ran out of their garage.
“They seem to make people happy,” says a modest Joyce, who now schedules caroler-signing trips across the U.S. Today, 130 employees make the figures, which sell at nearly 2,500 retailers worldwide for $25 to $100 apiece. Joyce has lost track of how many she’s designed.
It feels like millions, when you stand in the meandering Dickensian village set up in today’s Byers’ Choice facility in Chalfont. Beyond the assembly line of artisans, there’s a small, charming Christmas museum — but the real spectacle is the multitude of carolers displayed in snow-dusted mini-towns, with purse-sized sleighs and pocket-sized dogs (all for sale): a caroling nanny dragging a naughty caroling child, a caroling chimneysweep passing a caroling shopper. It’s part Twilight Zone creepy, part Macy’s Christmas-window magic, and 80,000 people come annually to see it. Some even attend Byers’ Choice festivals or the yearly one-man production of A Christmas Carol, performed by Charles Dickens’s great-great-grandson (who will happily sign your caroling Tiny Tim).
“I’m almost afraid to try to figure out exactly what the special pull is,” second-generation Bob Jr. says with a chuckle. “We know the handcrafting resonates, but we don’t want to overthink and change it.”
The most they care to do is replicate the success, as they have with the Shore-themed line, a favorite with my future mother-in-law, who—like many others—simply finds pleasure in arranging worlds in which everyone is joyous and singing. Until her sons come along, anyway.