Nativity collections

Four years ago, some friends from church invited us to their home for lunch one Sunday afternoon. Mrs. Boss (whose first name I can’t remember; she had been our older son’s eighth grade science teacher and I just thought of her as Mrs. Boss) had quite a collection of nativity scenes, some of which she kept up year round because it was too much work to put them away every year. It occurred to me that if I was going to collect something, it would be nativity scenes. And then it occurred to me that I already had a small collection of them.

I got my first set in Spain. I was very impressed by the Nativity displays I had seen there, where not just the Holy Family but an entire village was depicted. They reminded me somewhat of miniature railroad displays, and while I couldn’t begin to re-create what I had seen there, I did buy a simple set of figurines made for children. I liked it because it was different – the “shepherds” don’t just have sheep, they have a pig and a chicken. One of the wise men rides an elephant.

When I was preparing for my husband’s and my first Christmas together, I decided we needed a Nativity scene (besides the Spanish one) and I didn’t see any I liked in the stores. (I didn’t visit stores where they sell the really nice, really expensive ones.) So I got a set of plaster figures at the craft store and started painting them. It took a few years, but it’s now my main nativity scene.

When my older son was little, I didn’t want him playing with my hand-painted set, so I got an unbreakable children’s set from Avon. (When I was growing up, we had a plastic set my sister and I could play with, and a very nice hand-painted and very breakable set that we could only handle with great care.) It was a little bit difficult to use the Avon set to teach the Christmas story, however, as the one male figure (other than the wise men and Jesus) has to double as both Joseph and a shepherd.

Then my sister sent me a set that was made in Peru. As with the set from Spain, the figures look more like traditional villagers where the set was made than the familiar nativity figures most of us are used to – which probably are not all that true to life to the original villagers of Bethlehem.

Sometime a few years ago I acquired (not sure when or how, but there it was in my basement) a cloth nativity scene. Except for the camel, whatever animals it may have once had have gone missing, but it’s another good set to let children play with (as a matter of fact, Al wants to go play with it right now). And I also bought an olivewood scene (one-piece with no movable figures) that was made in Bethlehem.

When I heard about a display in Ainsworth of 2000 nativity scenes from over 100 countries, I decided we had to make a visit. It is located in the Ainsworth Opera House, with nativity sets filling tables not only in the main room but also the stage itself and a side room. Each set is identified with a card telling where it is from and what it is made of, as well as some interesting notes about it.

The man who owns and displays the collection pointed out some of the more unusual sets, such as the one made of colored sand in a bottle, and another one carved from a gourd inside another gourd (the outer gourd was the “stable”). He noted that Peru seems to export the most nativity sets, and I know I saw some in his collection some of the ones shown for sale here.

Most of the sets are made of clay or plastic, but there are also quite a few made from ceramic or porcelain, various metals, and even several from corn shucks. Others were more unusual (from the perspective of our own culture):

  • Yak felt, from Nepal
  • Banana leaves, from Uganda
  • Straw, from Bangladesh
  • Beeswax, from Germany
  • Woven basket (not only the stable but the figures also), from Ecuador
  • Copper wire, from the Philippines

There were at least four made in Haiti, using steel from oil drums. One very small scene was painted on the inside of a seed (sliced in half) from a courbaril tree. Another miniature was made from pink onyx, and had been carved using dental tools.

In some, the materials were ordinary enough, but the design showed a good deal of creativity. My son liked the “Cativity,” where all the figures are cats instead of people or other animals. (I liked the one using dogs better.) One had an igloo in place of a stable, and the animals were a polar bear, a seal, and a reindeer. One very artistic design is this one made to look like it is carved from a piece of wood.

In some ways, his collection is perhaps too big. My husband and I agreed that postcards didn’t really count as nativity scenes (I would allow one but not dozens), and that multiple instances of the same set (in slightly different sizes and with different pieces missing in some cases) did not count as multiple exhibits. Plus, the sheer number of sets crowded into a small area makes it virtually impossible to properly appreciate each one. It’s amazing to see them all there, but I’d enjoy more seeing a smaller number at a time and really taking a close look at each one.

I read about a woman in Cookeville, TN who has the kind of collection I would like. There are only slightly more than 30 sets, but each is very different, and each reflects the culture where it was made.

“What I love about them is no matter what the culture — even though the Bible says Jesus was Jewish and came from a Jewish family — the people in the nativity look like the culture they came from,” said Jill. “Which just says to me, it’s universal. People can feel that Jesus is accessible to them in their culture and that’s the way they’ve created their nativity to look. It’s a different representation of the same thing.”
For a look at the variety of styles, materials, and cultural expressions of the Nativity, take a look at this collection, from the Marian Library in Dayton, OH.
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