Byers Choice: Crafting Christmas Carolers

American Artisans, Made in America, People, Seasonal, Traditions
on December 3, 2012
Byers' Choice figurines on display at the Byers' Choice museum gallery.
Brian Freed

As a young mother during the 1960s, Joyce Byers couldn’t find Christmas ornaments that reflect the season’s joyful traditions, so she crafted her own caroler figurines—and ended up singing to the hearts of thousands of adoring fans.

“People look for ones that remind them of a family member,” she says about the Byers’ Choice Carolers, whose rosy-cheeked faces with O-shaped mouths appear ready to burst into holiday song.

Byers’ collection of merrymaking figurines includes postmen delivering miniature Christmas cards, bespectacled grandmothers with platters of Christmas cookies, bundled-up ice skaters, and Tiny Tim and other characters in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

Hundreds of thousands of Byers’ Choice Carolers are made each year by the Chalfont, Pa. (pop. 4,009) company, one of the last and largest American manufacturers of Christmas ornaments, and sold at 2,500 gift shops nationwide.

Byers, 69, wasn’t thinking of business, though, when she first created the delightful dolls from household odds and ends: wire coat hangers and newspapers for bodies, fabric scraps and fur from her mother’s old coat, and snippets of hair from her two sons and the family’s dog. She was thinking of re-creating warm holiday memories.

“As a child, I’d go caroling with my church group,” she says about one of her favorite holiday activities. “The adults would put us in the back of a hay wagon and we’d go from farmhouse to farmhouse in South Lancaster County.”

At first, Byers made the figurines for her own family and for gifts, but after several requests, she began selling them for $12 apiece at the Woman’s Exchange consignment store in Wayne, Pa. When her husband Bob’s construction business fell on hard times in the 1970s, the Byerses began making and marketing Carolers out of necessity. Bob, 73, transformed their garage into a workshop and the whole family got involved.

Jeff Byers, 44, and Bob Byers Jr., 46, remember bending heaps of hangers. “We always had some incentive, like bartering work for bikes,” says Jeff, now the company’s vice president of marketing.

Today, 120 employees craft Joyce’s designs, and wire hangers remain the backbone of the family business. Hangers are straightened, cut and bent to form the skeleton of each character.

As the Carolers take shape, artist Tanya Pronkowitz, 35, stands their wire legs in circular plaster bases that she’s poured on a tabletop. “People are so fascinated and admire how we put these together,” says Pronkowitz, who has worked at Byers’ Choice for 10 years.

From a large viewing area above the production floor, visitors watch as artists create each body with tissue paper around the wire. “It’s like sculpting with paper,” says Bob Jr., company president.

Much of the charm of the Carolers, which sell for about $65 each, is their individuality, exemplified by different shaped bodies and painted festive faces. Joyce sculpts each head in clay, from which plaster molds are made, then artists add the finishing touches.

“My cheeks are generally rosier,” says artist Tricia Schulberger, 31, who can identify figures she has painted in a lineup.

Other artists glue hair on heads and dress the dolls in wool scarves, knitted hats, jackets and skirts sewn from hundreds of fabrics, ribbons and laces. They pose the figurines with accessories, such as tiny wicker baskets filled with wrapped gifts.

“We feel like we’re celebrating Christmas year-round,” says artist Patty Barany, 50, employed at Byers’ Choice since 1980.

At the company’s Christmas Museum, miniature villages teem with Carolers from Christmases past and attract avid collectors such as Roger LeBlanc, 74, of Leominster, Mass., who bought his first two Carolers in 1981 and today owns about 4,000. “They remind me of people I knew and know,” LeBlanc says.

Joyce, who travels nationwide to meet fans at store events, feels blessed by the success of her miniature merrymakers and donates 20 percent of the company’s profit to charitable organizations.

“Part of Christmas is sharing,” she says.