Jo Packham, the woman who reinvented Christmas

Story by Becky Cairns
(Standard-Examiner staff)
Tue, Dec 11, 2012
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Every evening in December, when it’s dark and the lights are all a-twinkle, a little elf creeps into Christmas Village.

Meandering the walkways, she looks over each and every one of the festively decorated cottages and peers into their windows.

Is everything just right? Are the lights working and the tiny trains running on their tracks? Are the dolls sitting upright on their chairs and the garlands hanging properly on the miniature trees?

Making sure the magic is in place is the reason for “elf” Jo Packham’s nightly rounds at the holiday attraction she has spearheaded for more than a decade in Ogden’s Municipal Gardens.

It’s likely none of the village visitors recognize the strolling chairwoman of the Christmas Village Committee, and that sits as well with Packham as the gingerbread trimming on one of her quaint little cottages.

“I’ve never wanted the village to be about me,” says Packham — it’s about the volunteers who make the holiday “town” run, she explains, and the children who love to come look at it all.

No wonder Packham likes to stand, unobserved, behind the crowds gathered around the little cottages and watch the reactions of kids and their parents to the displays.

“It’s my payback,” she says, adding, “I cry every single night.”

As an Ogden book and magazine publisher and editor, Packham travels a good share of every month, but during December she makes it a point to be home to oversee the details of bringing the village to life.

“I love my Christmas Village,” says the chairwoman, who remembers coming to see the attraction every year during her own childhood.

Life is a pie?

Whether it’s festooning a park with holiday decorations or building a company specializing in how-to publications, Jo Packham lives a life centered around the many facets of creativity.

Her crafting ventures began in 1979 with the Vanessa Ann Collection, a publisher of cross-stitch books. That eventually morphed into today’s Chapelle, Ltd., co-publisher of more than 1,000 hardcover books on every “work of the human hand” imaginable, from quilting to gardening to jewelry making to woodworking.

The company puts out fewer books per year these days due to Packham’s new focus on producing the quarterly magazines “Where Women Create” and “Where Women Cook,” done in partnership with Stampington & Company of Laguna Hills, Calif.

“I love this magazine job. ... I’ve never had so much fun,” says Packham, estimating she’s on the road three out of four weeks per month to meet and work with well-known artists and cooks like “The Pioneer Woman” Ree Drummond, spotlighted in the magazines.

“I want to be part of what they do, and I want to understand them,” she adds. “I think I should know everyone we feature, and I think they should know me.”

Launching in January will be “Where Women Create Business,” a magazine to help small entrepreneurs “work smarter instead of harder,” Packham says. Every issue will feature 12 women sharing their real-life experiences of what has worked and not worked in running their businesses.

As for other projects, Packham is excited about the new year’s debut of her company’s Create•ology website and the February release of “Pie•ography,” a compilation of recipes from 39 cooks — including herself — who were asked to tell the story of their lives in a pie.

“(They were asked to) turn it into a pie that was fabulous and edible, and then they told the story of why those ingredients are indicative of their life,” says the author, who goes on a nationwide book tour in early 2013 to sell “Pie•ography” in Costco stores.

A ‘green’ leader

Other foodies from the book will join Packham at the book signings, which is one of the advantages to producing such compilation-style books, the Ogden editor explains. Rather than a single author trying to go it on her own and promote herself, there are 30-plus women actively selling the product.

That collaborative concept is the same one Packham says she applied at Christmas Village after being appointed chairwoman in 2002. If 50 or more companies sponsor and create cottages in the village, then all those companies are promoting Christmas Village to their own employees, their customers and their families, she says.

“We all need to help each other,” she says.

During Packham’s tenure as chairwoman, Christmas Village has grown from eight cottages to nearly 60, with numerous miniature replicas of Ogden’s landmark buildings. Other additions include nightly entertainment in the Ogden amphitheater, a ride-on model train, and, this year, a storytelling tent.

Packham took over Christmas Village after the attraction’s unpopular temporary relocation to Historic 25th Street due to construction of the Ogden Amphitheater in the Municipal Gardens.

The native Ogdenite laughs often as she remembers how “green” she was at the job at first: Who knew, for starters, that the village houses ought to be built directly on trailers — instead of on the ground — so they could be easily transported to the Municipal Gardens?

Cottages to horses

But there are tear-jerkingly good memories from those first years, too. At-risk kids from Ogden youth groups — some of them “gangbangers in lockdown,” Packham says — helped build the first 35 cottages, laboring six hours a night for weeks.

Once the structures were finished and ready to move, Packham remembers she was concerned about potential vandalism to the houses in the park.

“ ‘Miss Jo,’ ” she remembers one of the boys telling her, “  ‘you don’t have to worry about the vandalism. One of us is a member of every gang in town and we will make sure nobody touches the cottages’ — and nobody ever did.”

Although it was a wonderful family tradition, Christmas Village was old and tired and needed “new life and vision,” says former Ogden mayor Matthew R. Godfrey of his appointment of Packham as chairwoman 11 years ago.

“I wouldn’t say she’s improved it — I’d say she’s reinvented it,” Godfrey says, noting Packham’s expansion of the village and additions such as the entertainment. “She’s one of the rare people that loves the community enough to actually do something about it.”

Godfrey says Packham brought the same passion to the creation of the “Trail to Pioneer Days,” a summertime display on the streets of downtown Ogden of 60-plus fiberglass horses painted by local artists. He admits he thought the idea sounded “hokey” when Packham first presented it, but says he’s been shocked at the success of the horses.

“It was Jo, and whatever Jo does, she does well,” he says.

Beyond lemonade

As a local quilter, Gina Maughan says she enjoys Packham’s publications because they offer tried-and-true tips from today’s artists; “Where Women Create,” for example, shows how various crafters set up their personal studios, be they large or small.

“Everyone wants their own niche to put their stuff,” says Maughan, of South Ogden.

Maughan also says her longtime friend Packham is “generous to a fault,” not to mention passionate and driven.

“Jo’s almost not like she’s happy unless her hair’s on fire — she’s got so many items in the fire,” Maughan says. “When things slow down, she gets another project.”

A mother of two and grandmother of two, Packham describes herself as a “homegrown, small-town girl,” who grew up in a working-class home on Ogden’s Ninth Street. She and daughter Sara Tolliver co-own Olive & Dahlia on Historic 25th Street; son Justin Buehler is moving back to Ogden from California soon to open a restaurant.

Some folks are just born to be entrepreneurs, Packham, 62, says, and she would be one of them. This was a child who not only ran her own lemonade stand but also collected buffalo nickels and sold them for a dime, and sold peonies to decorate graves at Memorial Day.

“I’ve always had some kind of a small business and when you think about it, I never made any money at them,” she says with that ready laugh.

New directions

After more than a decade of leading the Christmas Village committee, Packham says she’s hoping to pass on her duties to a yet-to-be-found chairperson-elect in 2013. The Ogden businesswoman is a firm believer that change is good; otherwise, folks don’t push themselves and grow.

“Some people are afraid of change — I’m afraid of something staying the same,” says Packham. She adds, by way of example, “Since I was 15, I’ve repainted every room in my house every year — one color for one year is long enough. You’ve got to move on.”

Christmas Village, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, is always evolving, Packham says, yet the holiday attraction continues to have an appeal in today’s fast-paced world.

“It just gives you a minute to be a kid again,” she says, “whether you’re 3 or you’re 80.”

And for herself — that “elf” helping to create the magical moments — she says, “It’s like playing house all the time.”

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