A classic Christmas tale inspired a pandemic passion project for a local dentist
By Renee Ambroso | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Rows of snowcapped roofs, dripping icicles and blinking string lights adorn a wintry industrial village. Evergreens and glowing shop windows line cobblestone streets and train tracks disappear into a tunnel beneath a rocky mountain.
The village sits inside Jill Cheek and Dr. Daniel Cheek’s Chapel Hill home, taking up nearly the entire living room. Daniel began working on it in March 2020 when the pandemic temporarily shut down his Hillsborough dental practice, and he found himself with hours to fill at home. He dived headfirst into the hobby that he’d fostered for several years, mitigating the isolation of the early months of the pandemic. “I enjoyed having [the project] – it really was a stress reliever,” he says.
At first, Daniel set out to construct the smaller diorama that decorated their home every December. The inspiration stemmed from a classic holiday story – “A Christmas Carol,” penned by Charles Dickens in 1843. During his childhood, Daniel gathered with his family in their living room each year at Christmas as they dimmed the lights and listened to the tale on a 33 rpm record. The scratchy well-loved vinyl hissed and popped, and it became his favorite holiday tradition.
Each year, his village that began on a 4-by-4 card table grew larger and more detailed. Now, dozens of Ebenezer Scrooge and ghost figurines dot the landscape under the mountain that Jill and Daniel have dubbed “Mount Corona.” More than 100 buildings and several hundred additional pieces shape the backdrops of familiar scenes from Dickens’ novel, from Scrooge’s childhood home to the bleak cemetery where he has an epiphany (complete with uprooted trees and decrepit fences). Overlooking the whole display is a bright red “Merry Christmas” sign that dates back to the 1950s and hung in Daniel’s parents’ home.
Stashed among the snowy 19th century sets are modern touches: a functional water fountain, a horsedrawn Zamboni, a water tower bearing a blue “M” for his alma mater, the University of Michigan, and a tiny telephone. The latter “obviously doesn’t belong here, but [it’s] a gas-powered telephone,” Daniel jokes.
After his dental practice reopened in summer 2020, Daniel spent evenings and weekends putting together the separate sections of the village that he’d constructed. He planned and built supports from plastic foam, plaster, paint and caulk. “[Then] I started in earnest in August,” Daniel says. He listened to festive tunes throughout late summer and fall, finishing the installation in mid-October.
Rather than deconstruct the project after the 2020 holidays were finished, as he did in years past, Daniel kept it up all of 2021, and so “Mount Corona” is staying put. “As long as we’re here, it’s here,” Jill laughs.
After a quiet holiday last December, Jill and Daniel are looking forward to hosting guests for Christmas this year and showing off the village. “People are just stunned by the size and magnificence of it,” Jill says. This Christmas, they’ll sit down to watch the 1951 film adaptation of the novel, starring Alastair Sim, and share Daniel’s village with their guests in person.
Dickens Village by the numbers:
- 100+ buildings
- 350+ figurines
- 1 windmill
- 3 months of construction
- 14 feet of space
- 2 Michigan M’s