Old Sturbridge Hires Tinsel The Talking Christmas Tree Built by UConn Puppeteers

Visitors to Old Sturbridge Village this month can meet and talk with Tinsel the Talking Christmas Tree during the “Christmas By Candlelight” events on Dec. 9 to 11, Dec. 16 to 18 and Dec. 23. (Patrick Raycraft / The Hartford Courant)

By Susan Dunne / Hartford Courant

Old Sturbridge Village is a celebration of times gone by, a period-perfect re-creation of an 18th- to 19th-century village. But among the village’s attractions this holiday season is a contemporary treat: a Christmas tree that talks, sings, recites poems and answers questions.

Last weekend, on his opening night in the “Christmas by Candlelight” series of events, the 8-foot-tall faux-fir named Tinsel entertained children and their parents with stories of his life, how he came to talk but why he can’t walk.

“I don’t have feet,” Tinsel told a child. “Can you hug?” the child asked. “I don’t have arms, unfortunately,” he responded.

“My favorite color is green,” a little girl said to Tinsel. “Ooh, we have something in common,” he responded.

Tinsel recited a poem to the children, which explains how he magically began to talk after being sprinkled with reindeer dust: “When I was just a wee pine cone and fallen from my tree, I landed into Santa’s sleigh, and oh, the things I did see!”

Children interact with Tinsel the Talking Christmas Tree in Old Sturbridge Village.
Children interact with Tinsel the Talking Christmas Tree in Old Sturbridge Village.

Tinsel, a vision of soft green fur dotted with glittering ball ornaments and topped by a red bow and holly berries, was designed by puppet builders Jim Krupa and Heather Ashe. The puppeteering is done by Nic Parks, 26, a resident of Ashford and a senior in the Puppet Arts program at UConn. Parks will do 24 eight-minute shows each night the “Christmas by Candlelight” is held.

Parks said he modeled Tinsel’s voice after the voice of the Mad Hatter in the 1951 animated Disney film “Alice in Wonderland,” with a little bit of King Candy from “Wreck It Ralph” thrown in.

Local families have seen Parks perform before: He manned a puppet of a baby T-Rex at the CT Science Center’s “Dino Encounter.”

Puppeteering is a dream job for Parks, but it is his second dream job. He entered UConn’s puppet arts program, which is renowned nationwide, after leaving what he originally thought was his destiny, working as a zookeeper.

“I worked at Moonridge Animal Park in Big Bear [Calif.],” said Parks, who grew up in Bellflower, Calif. “I took care of bison, bears, mountain lions, snow leopards, foxes, wolves, golden eagles.”

The grungy day-to-day care of the animals dampened his enthusiasm, so he decided to shift his career focus. “I’ve been fascinated by puppetry ever since I saw ‘The Lion King’ on Broadway,” he said.

Tinsel’s home at Sturbridge is across the street from the building where Santa Claus greets children. This is the last year for Sturbridge’s veteran Santa, who has portrayed the role for 21 years. Next year, there’ll be a new Santa in town and Parks hopes he’ll be back as Tinsel.

“It’s not every day that you get to talk to a tree,” he said.

CHRISTMAS BY CANDLELIGHT is at Old Sturbridge Village, 1 Old Sturbridge Village Road in Sturbridge, Mass., from 3 to 9 p.m. every Friday, Saturday and Sunday through Dec. 23. Admission is $22, $14 ages 4 to 12, free to children 3 and younger. www.osv.org