IF THERE is an opposite to the Grinch who stole Christmas, it is Val Holmes.
For 44 years, Val has been creating whimsical worlds of wonder to delight generations of children who have stood at the windows of Todds and now Brown Thomas, their eyes aglow, all words lost in a tumble of teddies, lights, fairies and snow scenes.
Val took up work as the store window dresser on December 16, 1974 and that has been his job ever since, the Christmas windows the highlight of his – and his team’s – year.
This year will be his last window as he is retiring with every intention of travelling the world.
“The year we did all the windows fully animated is the one I remember best,” Val tells the Limerick Post. “That was Christmas, ’79, the Year Of the Child. We usually had one animated window but people thought we were doing especially for that year but that was luck.
“There was a great buzz about those windows. People come night and day to look at the Christmas windows because there’s something very special about the windows after dark and they just stand and look for ages”.
Working in retail wasn’t originally his idea of an easy life, Val admits.
“When I got the job and I was told that I would work Monday to Friday I thought all my birthdays had come together – no Saturdays. I was delighted. And I’ve loved every minute since – you couldn’t do this and not love it”.
Val and the team are also responsible for all the other window displays during the year and the in-store displays. In the early days, planning for Christmas and the retail year started in April with a trip to London with the manager and merchandising manager to check out the big stores there for inspiration.
Then it was on to Warrington, where many of the props for the coming year are bought, no doubt raising a few eyebrows at customs over hammer-wielding ailing and prancing reindeer.
More lately, the travelling salespeople come to Dublin where Val and key members of staff from all of the Brown Thomas stores gather to lay plans for the year’s displays.
Currently, the themes for the windows travel between the BT stores each year, with each store pulling their individual fashions and merchandise together in a Winter wonderland on the common theme.
With no formal training whatever, Val’s eagle eye misses nothing.
“You have to go outside and see what the public are seeing. There might be a mannequin posed the wrong way or something that isn’t quite in the right spot and needs to be moved. You just know when it’s right and when it’s not and you keep at it until it’s right”.
Do things ever go wrong?
Val admits there have been some bumps in the night.
“You might come in and find a load of stuff has fallen down but the public never get to see that. The first job in the morning is to check the windows and the last job at night is to do a sweep and make sure everything is okay”.
Another of Val’s favourite times are the sales.
“At one stage, when it was Todds, the slogan was to wait for the real sale. And we would pile every window high with sale goods – household, fashion, you name it. They would queue from early morning for the 9am specials – it was like Black Friday in America long before that ever came here”.
The father of two sons and a daughter and grandad to four boys and a girl is originally from Hyde Road in Prospect and has delighted in bringing his own family to see his handiwork at Christmas over the years.
A spot of ill-health has seen Val off work in recent months but as well as being the man who puts Christmas front and centre in BTs he is is also the store ambassador, meeting and greeting customers during the Christmas period with a tilt of his top hat.
“I’m looking forward to coming back for Christmas to do that – everyone knows me from the windows because at one time, there weren’t any blinds and people would wave to you when you were in the window getting a new display ready.
“Now, being the ambassador as well is great. One woman asked me ‘are you the real Mr Brown Thomas?’
Val is the longest-serving member of staff to hold the same position in the store. “Both my sisters worked here before me and we’re like a big family here in BTs,” he says.
“I don’t think of myself as being in charge of windows – I’m part of a great team”.
Val clearly has passion for his job, but does he have another passion, the Limerick Post wonders?
“Rugby. What else?”