A “Sweet” Holiday Village
Cameron Filepas in front of the window display he created for Thomas Sweet Chocolate. (Photo by Kelly Filepas)
How Cameron Filepas Creates Thomas Sweet’s Window Displays
By Donald H. Sanborn III
For two years, chocolate vendor Thomas Sweet has dazzled Palmer Square visitors with a charming window display for the holidays. The diorama depicts a snowy, colorfully lit — and lavishly decorated — village.
If the elaborate display seems to resemble a stage set, there is a good reason: Cameron Filepas, the former head chocolatier who decorates the windows, happens to be a theatrical lighting designer. His clients include both regional and educational theaters such as Luna Stage, Axelrod Performing Arts Center, Fairleigh Dickinson University, and many more.
“Ever since I was young, I always loved lights,” Filepas says, “whether it was holiday lights, Halloween lights, or lights on houses.” He discovered theatrical lighting when, “My mom would bring me to children’s shows in town put on by the Hopewell Valley Children’s Theatre; that was my first glimpse of theater.”
“We also used to see A Christmas Carol at McCarter. That was a tradition for my family,” says Filepas, who recalls that he eagerly learned as much as he could about the production.
He participated in theatrical productions in middle school and high school, taking advantage of the opportunity to join stage crews. “I realized that this was something I really wanted as a career, so I went to college for it,” he says. Filepas holds a BFA in Lighting Design from Montclair State University.
As for his interest in miniature displays, Filepas recalls, “When I was 10 or 11, every year we would visit my grandmother in Pennsylvania. We would go to a store called Cathy’s Christmas Shop.” Filepas was impressed by the store’s displays for Halloween, as well as Christmas, and was excited to see them every year.
“I told my mom, ‘I want to have a little village!’” Filepas continues. “So we went to Michael’s and bought a house, snow, and some trees. I used to set up little tables, in my bedroom, of these villages. It started off with one house, with a single road, and two little light-up deer.”
Another source of models was Department 56. Filepas adds, “Slowly, over the years, I grew these villages to the point where they went out into a hallway upstairs, and then took up the entire wall!”
(Photo by Cameron Filepas)
Thomas Sweet Chocolate
Filepas says, “When I graduated from college, I started working at Thomas Sweet in between theater gigs. I was at the ice cream store first, in the summer of 2019. Then, in October of 2020, I started working at the chocolate store. I was there until this past February (Valentine’s Day).”
“Before I started, I had no idea what chocolate making was,” he says. “They trained me, and I ended up absolutely loving it. Then, a few months later I became their head chocolatier. I loved working there, especially during the holidays. It’s not the same as it was when I was a kid, but I was still able to create chocolate pumpkins, or chocolate Christmas trees.”
He says he saw the store’s window and thought, “This is a vintage, kind of old-fashioned window — I can build one of my villages and put it in here.” In a phone conversation, Filepas pitched the idea to Marco Cucchi, the owner of Thomas Sweet.
“I said, ‘Hey, look. I’ve had these villages for years. They’ve never been shown to the public; the only people who have seen them are my family, and some of my parents’ friends. I think this would be great to put right in Palmer Square — right outside of the Christmas tree.’ He said, ‘Yeah, let’s try it out!’”
He adds, “So I built up an entire new board. I took all of my houses from the old village, and then I just started placing them. That’s how that village came about, and now it’s become, I think, a Palmer Square tradition.”
Filepas’ miniature village for Thomas Sweet first appeared in 2020 — during the pandemic. “That really made me want to do the display,” Filepas recalls. “Everyone was going through so many things, and I was like, ‘You know what? Something about this holiday season just feels a little bit different.’ I thought, ‘OK, somehow, I still need to feel that Christmas spirit that I felt for so many years.’”
Since the miniature village’s debut, Filepas has also created Thomas Sweet window displays for each major holiday and season.
Filepas at work on the window display for Thomas Sweet Chocolate. (Photo by Kelly Filepas)
“A Whimsical Utopia”
Filepas writes on his website, “Growing up having such a strong interest in lights, I was drawn to the idea of miniature scenes, whether that was model displays, seasonal villages, or theatrical models. What I find most captivating is the ability to downsize what we see on a day-to-day basis into a whimsical utopia, incorporating both real and unreal details.”
He elaborates, suggesting that theatrical lighting, and the designs of the window displays, are “almost the same thing. You’re re-creating something that you’ve seen; and then you’re adding parts here and there that are more theatrical. That’s what drives my passion each day: the ability to do that. I can see a sunset, focus on the colors and the way light hits a person or tree, and then re-create that on stage.”
Asked about the extent to which the process of building the window display resembles that of lighting a show, Filepas says, “The initial ideas apply. Every lighting design starts with research. With the village, I did have some research images — whether it was something that I just remembered, or something that I saw on the internet.”
“It’s kind of the same process for theater,” FIlepas continues. “The first thing I do is read the script, then find some visual research. That will then turn into some full ideas, which will be shared with the director and design team, and that kind of goes from there.”
Filepas points out, “Of course, theater is much larger.” He notes that, while some shows are compatible with the window display’s whimsical aesthetic, in other cases, “You want to exactly replicate how the sun rises, and how it hits this house. Whereas the village is a little bit more … I guess the best way to describe it is ‘cartoonish.’ You can get away with more, without having to have a reason for it, and that’s what makes it fun. I can say, ‘Hey, let’s make this tree curved, and let’s put a face on it!’”
When lighting a show, Filepas has to accommodate movement, which is much less the case with the village. He says that when he lights the window display, “I’m not focusing on whether someone is in the dark or not. It’s all about placing stuff in a way that I think works well.”
When it came time to create the village, Filepas began by observing the space. “When I saw the Thomas Sweet window, I saw that there are two levels. So clearly there had to be some type of cliff or mountain,” he says.
In his basement he has a table that holds a white piece of plywood cut out exactly to the Thomas Sweet window space. “I start with all of the houses, because they are the bulkiest items,” he explains. “That will allow me to gauge where everything else will go. Once the houses are in, I can add the roads, fences, trees, and lampposts.”
Filepas emphasizes that the process is one of trial and error, rather than forethought. “I have all the accessories laying next to me — in tons of boxes. I just take an accessory and start placing it, thinking ‘maybe this will look good here, or let me actually try it over here.’ I will be sitting there and think, ‘Maybe I should build a mountain here.’ Then, I’ll see where that idea goes.”
Filepas adds that his inspiration is derived from memories of “when I was growing up: all the Christmas shows, light shows, holiday walks, and amusement parks.”
This writer comments that the village represents an idealized Christmas — what Filepas would like the holidays to be. “Yes, exactly,” Filepas says. “The end product is what Christmas felt like to me when I was a kid. Whenever I look at that village, that is the way that young Cameron saw everything. That goes for both the Halloween and the Christmas displays. I want these villages to evoke memories of a magical time, when everything was glimmering and beautiful.”
(Photo by Cameron Filepas)
“My Favorite Part”
Filepas’ favorite aspect of the holiday village is viewers’ reactions. He particularly likes when people would enter Thomas Sweet and say, “‘My favorite part was this…’ I loved hearing that from all the people that came and saw it.” Popular favorites include an ice-skating rink, and a couple sitting under a gazebo.
Asked about his own favorite parts of the village, Filepas says, “The Christmas tree farm. Right in front of that farm, I built a sign that says, ‘Thomas Sweet Chocolate.’ I’ve always loved that piece, because that was always a holiday tradition for my family: we’d go and find a Christmas tree, whether it was in a field or at a store. So when I found that the farm was an actual piece, I immediately bought it and put it in the village.”
He likes the way that the farm sat “behind a snowman house — there was a little path around it — and then a big mountain, with trees, that had Santa flying over it.” He also singles out a “sledding hill on the far left side, on the lower level. It had a nice white fence, with little Christmas lights going around it, and people sledding. It led into this gated path, with big Christmas trees lit up.”
With a bottom piece, which features a pathway that runs the length of the display, Filepas wanted to evoke an “evening in December when it had snowed. The kids are sledding — but in the distance you see all of the houses lit up with their Christmas lights.”
He also remembers adding bonfires with skiers, and a hot chocolate vendor. Of the latter he says, “We used to go to a place called Peddler’s Village in Lahaska (in Pennsylvania), and they always had hot chocolate. There were huge Christmas trees all around the area, along with the lights on all the houses. It was beautiful.”
(Photo by Cameron Filepas)
“Color and Movement”
Filepas treasures the opportunity to add to the Palmer Square holiday decorations, because when he was younger, “The tree lighting ceremony was always the start of the season for me. It was a tradition for me to wake up on Black Friday, set up all of the Christmas lights on the house, and then the whole family would go into Palmer Square and watch the ceremony. It was always the best day.”
He appreciatively reflects that he subsequently ended up working in Palmer Square and has added his village to it.
As of this interview, Filepas had not yet begun work on this year’s holiday display. “Every time the village gets moved, some stuff falls over, or something falls apart,” he says. “So I have to clean it up a little bit. In the middle of November I’ll probably spend a week to get everything back up and running.”
He emphasizes that, despite an increase in commitments to design lighting for shows, he wants to be the one to mount the window display, rather than training somebody else to do it.
“I want to make sure that it still has my original vision, so I’ll set it up myself,” he says. “I moved to Jersey City recently, so I’m not going to be around. But I told Marco, ‘I will make sure that I will be free to come back to Princeton and set up that village!’”
Filepas hopes that the holiday display will become an annual fixture, not unlike McCarter Theatre’s A Christmas Carol.
“I hope that whatever I’m doing, I can dedicate time every year to come in and install that village,” he says. “It is just a three-piece thing; you set it up and plug everything in. But
I also always want to change a little bit, so people can say, “Oh, this is new this year.’”
“I always try to bring color and movement to my work, and I want people to see that,” Filepas continues, adding that he hopes the display helps viewers meet hardships and challenges with a measure of optimism: “Everything in this village looks so lovely; maybe that’s how it could be in real life.”
“I’ve heard people say, ‘I just wish I could live in that village. Everything looks so calm and perfect,’ Filepas says. “If that’s what that village can do — bring people that comfort — then that’s why I want to keep doing it.”
The 2022 window display will be unveiled on November 25 (Black Friday).
“I set the village up the week before Thanksgiving,” Filepas says. “Then, I come in very early Friday morning to unveil it. After that, it’s lit up for everyone to see!”
To learn more about Filepas’ lighting designs and window displays, visit cameronfilepasdesign.com.
(Photo by Cameron Filepas)