Thanksgiving weekend is often a time for family, leftovers, football and shopping.

However, for Mother Mary Louise Kane, PBVM, it's when she begins the two-week process of setting up her miniature Christmas village at St. Colman's Home in Watervliet.

A growing, glowing spectacle, Mother Mary Louise's village spans eight tables and several windowsills in the dining room of St. Colman's, a school for children with disabilities and emotional issues. Mother Mary Louise is major superior for the Presentation Sisters who serve there.

Children, sisters at the school and visitors admire the village every year over a meal or a cup of coffee.

Over the course of the holiday weekend, a slumbering village comes alive: Snowy mountains are built over cardboard boxes; sparkling rivers are painted blue and white; dozens of streetlamps are secured in place with tacky glue. By Sunday, Mother Mary Louise is ready to take her constructions and build the village itself, adding the houses and figurines.

Playing dolls
That's when the fun begins.

"The rest is like playing in a dollhouse: Your imagination comes up, your creativity about what should I put here or there," Mother Mary Louise said.

She changes the layout of the village each year to bring different pieces to the forefront, making up her design plan as she goes along. The whole scene is usually complete by around Dec. 8.

Creating the Christmas wonderland has been a part of Mother Mary Louise's life since she was a child. Growing up in New York City, she said, "We had the Nativity scene as the focus. My dad used to put horses up [made of] plywood, and it would go across the whole living room. And he'd put the Lionel train in, and the mountains."

When she became principal at St. Colman's, she would set up a small village in the building's foyer. Thirty-five years later, the display has grown to thousands of pieces. One person remarked that it's no longer a village, but a city.

Most of the pieces have been gifts.

Keep 'em coming
"It's grown from something very small into something very large," Mother Mary Louise admitted. Whenever she has visitors who have given her a display item, she makes sure to point out where it's situated in the village.

Many of the buildings and scenes hold sentimental meaning to Mother Mary Louise, both because of the giver and because of their symbolism.

"I have a Cape Cod scene, and we've gone to Cape Cod for years," Mother Mary Louise said, referring to trips with her fellow sisters. "And I have the Yankee Stadium."

There's even an Alaskan town, since the superior once served in Alaska.

The miniature village includes a Catholic school with a schoolyard full of nuns watching children play baseball and make snow angels. But the Catholic Church is not alone: "I have the cathedral, and I even make one the synagogue," Mother Mary Louise said. "And I make one the Methodist church and the Catholic church, and I make sure every one has a pastor. It's pretty ecumenical."

The unpacking and assembling process is also a time of reflection.

"It's a good time to pray for people," said the sister. "You think about the people that gave you these pieces that are no longer with us."

The miniature Nativity scene, Mother Mary Louise's favorite, makes her think of someone very dear to her. After eyeing the set in a store for three years, Mother Mary Louise received it as a gift from a sister she'd cared for during an illness.

"She said, 'I want to give you something special. I just want to do something to say thanks.' It means a lot to me -- even more, now that she's not here."

Kids'-eye view
The children at St. Colman's, many of whom have autism, look forward to the twinkling village's appearance each year. They especially enjoy the little "Santa train" and searching for the tiny figurines of people in the lit-up houses.

Mother Mary Louise said she wishes she could be at the children's eye level to see all of the details they catch. She loves watching the students and their families find joy in looking at the village.

"My favorite holiday is Easter, but Christmas is a time for children, and that's who we serve here," she said.