From his hands to their hearts

Leominster’s ‘Mr. Christmas’ turns 99 this week, still carving joy out of wood and foam

By David Filipov
Globe Staff / December 5, 2009

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LEOMINSTER - They call him Mr. Christmas, and it is not just because of the colorfully lighted display of 265 carved and painted plastic foam Santas, elves, and manger scenes that draw thousands of visitors to his front yard each holiday season.

Louis Charpentier is himself a holiday attraction, the “Disney of Leominster,’’ in the words of the city’s mayor. Charpentier is a walking, talking history of this former mill town, one of countless immigrants who helped build the plastic industry here, a legendary character with a quick wit, a friendly chuckle, and a sculpted plastic foam mouse for anyone he meets. He can carve intricate figures from blocks of maple, pine, or rosewood.

Today, Leominster plans to honor Charpentier by making him marshal of the annual holiday stroll. He will ride on a float featuring a giant version of the plastic foam mice, he will flip the switch on the city’s holiday light display, and he will attend the community’s celebration of his upcoming birthday. All of this would be notable unto itself, but it becomes nearly miraculous when you take into account his age. Mr. Christmas turns 99 years old this Thursday.

It would be a red-letter day for any citizen. But Charpentier is not making that big of a deal out of it. The festivities are just the next item on his to-do list. And taking things one by one is his secret to how he has kept his skills intact for almost a century.

“I’m always thinking, what is the next thing that I am going to do, and how I’m going to go at it, and what it will be,’’ Charpentier said Wednesday in a clear tenor shaded with the slight French accent that lingers from his childhood in Saint-Claude, Quebec. “I imagine what I am going to do, and then I do it.’’

You get a nickname like Mr. Christmas, it sticks. But Charpentier is no Santa look-alike. He is neither roly nor poly: His wiry and compact frame is just over 5 feet tall. He prefers nifty V-neck sweaters and bow ties to a red and white suit. He earned that moniker with his deeds.

In the controlled clutter of his basement workshop - all tools, wood, and wires - Charpentier demonstrated how he does his thing. His hands adroitly guided half-inch strips of pine through the sharp teeth of a small band saw. Then they coaxed the drill-like tips of a frazing machine across the wood, etching intricate flower and vine carvings in a matter of seconds. Those hands do not shake, despite his 99 years.

They bear no scars, despite nine decades carving wood.

Charpentier then showed off the rest of his house, a treasure trove of detailed wood carvings of wagon trains and grazing cattle, scenes from his youth and from Leominster’s history. Awards adorn every wall, interspersed with portraits of his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and, yes, great-great-grandchildren.

He does not look a day over 80. Scientists have asked him to take part in longevity studies. People ask him for advice on how to live a long life. He laughs off the suggestion that he is doing anything special.

“This lady one time tells me, ‘Boy,’ she says, ‘you look good for your age,’ ’’ he recounted with a wry grin. “I said ‘When you’re good-looking, why change?’ ’’

Born in 1910 - “Two years before the Titanic sank, four years before the first World War started’’ - Charpentier came to Leominster with his family when he was 12. He was an amateur boxer, and though he stood just 5 feet, 2 inches and weighed 115 pounds in his physical prime, he says, he used to lift 125 pounds over his head with one hand.

During the Great Depression, he was painting signs for a living when he got a job making the models for mass-produced umbrella tops for a company called New England Novelty. He stayed in the business and later oversaw a group that designed jewelry, buttons, toys, and dolls. He retired after 47 years.

That was 33 years ago. Retirement did not slow him down. Charpentier taught students at local schools how to carve plastic foam. He still makes crucifixes for anyone who wants them - copies of the larger-than-life-size one he made for St. Cecilia Church in the late 1950s. He serves on town committees. And each year, he adds at least one figurine to his holiday display.

“He’s been a legend here in town, he’s like our Disney,’’ said Mayor Dean J. Mazzarella, who proudly showed off a wooden seal balancing a plastic foam ball in his office, a Christmas present from Charpentier. “We just assume, the guy’s around, he’s always been around, he’ll be around for another hundred years.’’

It was Mazzarella, 52, who started calling Charpentier Mr. Christmas in 2004. Like a lot of people, the mayor has been visiting Charpentier’s Christmas display since he was a boy. So has Alan Daigle of Gardner, who grew up in Leominster and has been making an annual visit to Charpentier’s front yard for years.

“It’s a tradition,’’ Daigle said Wednesday as he examined the oldest figures, which date to the early 1950s. “We wouldn’t miss it.’’

Charpentier has been living alone since 2000, when his wife of 64 years, Gladys, died. He stopped driving two years ago. His son, Ernest, himself a great-grandfather at age 69, takes him shopping for groceries and supplies for his work.

But Charpentier does pretty much everything else. A few years ago, Ernest Charpentier tried to hire a house cleaner for his father. He came over to the house one day to see how the arrangement was going.

“Dad had the woman sitting in a chair, and he was serving her coffee,’’ Ernest recalled.

The elder Charpentier works each day until 3 p.m., when he turns on his old solid-state television to watch “Dr. Phil’’ (“He is a very intelligent man,’’ said Mr. Christmas.) He watches “Judge Judy’’ and the news (“30,000 troops to Afghanistan!’’ he exclaimed.). He can make a foot-long crucifix out of wood in about 12 hours.

He greets visitors who bring small children to his display and hands out the mice. With every mouse he gives, he performs a little magic trick, deftly making the mice jump out of his closed fist. He has made up a supply of 600 mice for this year.

Then it’s on to the next thing.

“There’s always something doing,’’ said Mr. Christmas, with a smile. “I always find myself new work.’’