Holiday Giving: Winter Wonderland in Portsmouth

Photo: Portsmouth Art and Cultural Center

Photo: Portsmouth Art and Cultural Center

Holiday Giving: Winter Wonderland in Portsmouth

By Holly Henry

Portsmouth, Va. – It’s become a family tradition for folks across Hampton Roads for the past 10 years.

If you are looking for something new for your family at the holidays – Winter Wonderland is the place to be.

The Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center and Children’s Museum of Virginia are celebrating the tenth anniversary of “Winter Wonderland: Coleman Nursery Collection and Snow Wonders”.

Opening weekend festivities extend from November 29 through December 1, 2013, according to curator Gayle Paul. The entire exhibit and related festivities take place from November 29 through December 31, 2013.

Winter Wonderland features the Coleman Nursery Yuletide displays – a tradition that has roots dating back to 1966.


After 38 years of holiday wonderland, Coleman’s Nursery closed in 2003, according to Martha Fortson, Executive Director of the Portsmouth Museums Foundation. So, the question came up: “Where would all of the little people go?”

The “little people”, Fortson says, are the animated figures that Coleman’s has displayed for many years.

Victorian Elves

Victorian Elves

When presented with the idea of purchasing the Coleman display, the Portsmouth Museums Foundation “jumped at the chance,” Fortson says.  The non-profit (501©3) foundation raises funding for all four Portsmouth Museums – most recently the exhibits in the new Children’s Museum of Virginia.

The Coleman Nursery Collection was purchased in January of 2004 with the vision of Santa’s workshop on display, as well as the Victorian exhibit in the 1846 Courthouse in downtown Portsmouth on the corner of Court and High Streets, now known as the Portsmouth Art and Cultural Center.

Fortson says many Hampton Roads residents rejoiced that Winter Wonderland, the Coleman Legacy, would be preserved for future generations.

Ten years later, the exhibit remains on display with much restoration to the Coleman figures, and in a more traditional setting rather than a rustic outdoor nursery setting, says Fortson.

A partnership between the City of Portsmouth Museums and the Portsmouth Museums Foundation was established in 2004. That same year, Winter Wonderland opened in the historic courthouse. More than 24,000 people visited during that opening six weeks.  The sets, such as the Candy Shop, the Bakery, and the Victorian figures were gentle reminders of Coleman Nursery.

Martha Fortson and the Foundation are proud to give back to the community, and add to its holiday spirit.

“It has been a real joy for me to play a role in giving this legacy back to the children and families of Hampton Roads,” she says. “It has been a labor of love and that all of us can be proud to call our very own Winter Wonderland.”

Winter Wonderland: Coleman Collection -  The Baker Elves

Winter Wonderland: Coleman Collection –
The Baker Elves


Each year, Santa and his elves have transformed the historic 1846 Courthouse building and courtyard into a Wonderland of traditional displays, lights, and holiday trim, says Gayle Paul, Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center Curator.

The original Coleman Collection dates back to the mid-1960s, when nursery owners John Coleman and Junie Lancaster were inspired after a visit to the New York World’s Fair. An animated Sleeping Santa was their first purchase. From there, the collection grew to more than 100 figures.  In addition to holiday favorites of Sleeping Santa, Victorian skaters, carolers, woodland animals and penguins, Santa’s toy shops, bakery and candy factory add to the displays, Paul says. Trains are always a family favorite – so Santa has added something new to his train shop!

After years of moving from display to rest during the off season, Gayle Paul says a new Chalet building arrives this year to take center stage. It’s nestled into a woodland scene where activities anticipate the arrival of Santa.  Snow babies are ready to join in the anniversary celebration, alongside of penguins from the South Pole!


From November 29 through December 31, the weekends will be filled with music and holiday fun for the entire family – including face painting, balloons, magic, crafts, and pony rides.

Scheduled events include the Winter Wonderland Opening Weekend; followed by Snow Wonders, an Ornament and Tile Workshop, The Night Before Christmas Puppet Show, Sights and Sounds of a Winter Wonderland Planetarium Show, and Virginia’s Legendary Santa Trains Booksigning – something for everyone! You can even “take a holiday dip in chocolate” on December 28. Maryann Boho of the Williamsburg Chocolatier will be a special guest.

The sleigh carolers

Sleigh Carolers

Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center & Children’s Museum of Virginia

Hours of operation:


Tuesday – Thursday: 9am – 5pm

Friday – Saturday: 9am – 8pm

Sunday: 11am – 5pm

Special Dates and Times:

Open Tuesday, December 24th 9am – 5pm

Closed Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Open Tuesday, December 31st 9am – 5pm

Additional Information:

Children’s Museum of Virginia, 221 High Street, Portsmouth, VA 23704, 757-393-5397,

Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center, 400 High Street, Portsmouth, VA 23704, 757-393-8543,