The life-sized gingerbread house, wooden carolers and toy soldiers and the thousands of Christmas lights in the outdoor courtyard of Citizens Nursing Home in Havre de Grace represent more than yuletide glitter.
The popular display, called the Citizens Winter Wonderland, is a stop on the holiday Havre de Grace Candlelight Tour. But it also serves as an invitation to visit residents at the nursing home during a season that can be painfully lonely for some elderly.
"It can be a very lonely time for these people," said Jocelyn Mearkle, the home's assistant activity director.
More than 300 people have walked through the courtyard so far this season, marveling at hundreds of strings of lights, a life-like manger and familiar holiday figures, including Santa Claus, Rudolph the reindeer, elves and a snowman.
Mearkle and her husband, Dan, and volunteers Steve and Janet McDonald spend hours setting up the display each year. She said the event often reminds visitors of volunteer opportunities like the Adopt-A-Grandparent program.
"A few people will come through the nursing home and then join the program," Mearkle said. "A few seem to stay on through the next year. We would love to have the community more involved with the nursing home."
A local Brownies troop adopted several grandparents last year, but only a handful have remained active, she said. Residents, she said, love to receive cards -- not only at Christmas but all year long.
Although interest has waned in that program, the community has by no means forgotten about the elderly at the nursing home. Mearkle said several groups of carolers parade through the building each week during the holiday season.
The display, however, also has provided two holiday traditions for many of the more active residents. Many help paint new figures that are added to the scene every year, and others greet visitors during the Candlelight Tour.
"When we begin working on new figures, they come down every day and help," Mearkle said. "It's almost like a formal art class. They get so much satisfaction out of helping."
Howard Poteet, a resident of the home for 16 years, helped paint the toy soldiers and the snowman. Although Poteet does not have complete use of his fingers, nursing home workers were able to place a brush in his hand, and he moved his arm back and forth to paint.
"It's pretty nice," said Poteet, 46. "I enjoyed doing it. It makes it seem more like Christmas."
Many of the residents who helped paint the figures have died, Mearkle said. The scene was the idea of former nursing home resident Ellen Holtz, who died before the display actually began taking shape three years ago.
"All she saw was a couple of decorated Christmas trees," Mearkle said.
"When we put the gingerbread house up the next year, we made the display a memorial to Ellen. I think she would have liked this."
It's clear, though, that many residents, like 73-year-old Doris Amato, whose room overlooks the courtyard, enjoy the Christmas scene.
"It's gorgeous," she said. "It's beautiful. We really have a good view from our room. My roommate and I spend a lot of time looking out our window."
Nursing home residents would like to add a church and an operating model train display next Christmas. Mearkle's looking for volunteers to help build the train display.
"I have no idea how we're going to do that," she said.