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By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — Although Susan Hill of Colfax does not recall when she first started collecting nativity sets, she owns about thirty of them in all.
Hill is the owner of the Tapestry Trunk Bed and Breakfast in Colfax, and for an open house in November, held on the same day as the Colfax Municipal Building Restoration Group’s Tour of Homes, she set out her impressive collection of nativities.
Some of the nativities Hill owns are on the larger side, and some are quite tiny — the size of a necklace pendant.
For the open house, Hill also borrowed nativities from Colfax residents Mona Thorson, who owns the “Teddy Bear Christmas Pageant” and “The Kitten Christmas” as well as the little black bears nativity, and Kathy Dunbar, who owns a Towa nut nativity from Ecuador as well as Jim Shore nativity and several others.
The Teddy bear, kitten and black bear nativity sets add a sense of whimsy to the concept of nativity sets, Hill said.
The black bear nativity was upstairs in the “Up North” bedroom.
Regarding the Towa Nut Nativity from Ecuador, “as a button collector, we call them Tonga nuts,” Hill said.
In addition to collecting nativities, Hill also is an enthusiastic button collector.
The Towa/Tonga nuts “came in a big nutshell with portions like a Brazil nut. Back in the 1700s and 1800s, ships would go from England full of merchandise to the colonies and then they would fill the ships with ballast to go back to England. Tonga nuts were ballast. They brought the ballast to England and it piled up along the shore. Then somebody got the bright idea to make buttons and combs and all kinds of things. They either sliced them or ground them up,” Hill explained.
Another favorite nativity is the Fontanini, a brand of nativity set made in Italy.
Hill purchased her Fontanini nativity at thrift sale in Colfax for one dollar.
“I priced it out on e-Bay and it’s about $200 or $250, and they ranged from three piece to hundreds of pieces. Whole rooms can be a Fontanini nativity,” she said.
This particular Fontanini was made in 1995.
“They have different ones every year. In Italy they have whole rooms of creches. Some people call them creches. I call them nativities. Some people call them mangers, or sometimes the holy family,” Hill said.
Th nativity that Hill calls “the Cooks Valley Neon Nativity Set” is a brightly colored hand-painted set purchased at an estate sale in Cooks Valley just below the Cooks Valley Catholic church in the 1990s for $3.
“Someone from here in town was having an estate sale for their parents. What’s neat about it is it came in a box. I wish Diane Loew had come [for the open house]. Someone was telling me her father-in-law used to make those boxes. That’s what it came in,” Hill said.
Another nativity set owned by Kathy Dunbar is a Jim Shore made in 2003.
“He carves them out of wood and then casts them in resin. They have a lot of folk art,” Hill said.
According to the Jim Shore website, he “is a self-taught artist from Rome, Georgia. He creates sculpture, assemblage and environmental art from found objects.”
A “clay pot” or terra cotta nativity set Hill had displayed in the front window came from Peru. The set is striking in its simplicity.
“When I bought it, I knew it was from ‘south’ because it’s terra cotta. It was stuffed with paper, and on the newspaper it says Lima, Peru,” Hill said, noting that she did not remove all of the newspaper from inside the terra cotta set and would have to look at it again to find the date on the newspaper.
Another nativity set was made by Hallmark in 1998, and even by today’s standards was rather expensive since each of the pieces originally cost $6 and $8 each.
Another tiny nativity is the size of a necklace pendant.
“My friend Carol went on a trip. This is from Peru, and she brought this back for me for a gift. When I unwrapped it, I got a funny look on my face. And she said, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I said, ‘Oh, Elvis.’ And she said, ‘What!?’ I turned it over. She had bought it as a nativity but had never looked at the back of it. And it’s Elvis from Peru. I guess it’s ‘the king’ one way or the other,” Hill said.
The nativities tend to have the same characters in common: the three kings, a shepherd, sheep, Mary and Joseph, sometimes cows and camels, usually an angel.
“Something I think they are all missing is a star,” Hill said.
Other cherished nativity sets Hill owns include the “printed panel” made out of fabric and wooden cut-out nativities.
The printed panel originated when Hill worked at a fabric store in Eau Claire. The nativity came on a panel of fabric that you could cut out, sew together and stuff.
“My mom and I did that one,” Hill noted.
“The wooden cut-outs, my dad made these. He cut those out,” she said.
The black wooden silhouette nativity outside in front of the Tapestry Trunk Bed and Breakfast also was made by Tom Hill in the 1990s.
During the 1980s, Hill went on a trip to Germany.
The Goebel/Hummel nativity “is my pride and joy from Germany. I don’t even know exactly the year. I think it was about 1983, and I went to see my friend in the service,” Hill said, noting that her friend had been stationed in Keiserslautern.
“We went to a summertime Christmas in July, a Christmas mart. This is Hummel. I actually bought two of these. I gave one in memory of my sister’s twins to the Sunday school. I carried them home with me. I don’t know how,” Hill said.
“The one for Sunday school, I put it in a big wrapped fancy Christmas box with ribbon. For years, I would go there for the Sunday school, the week after Thanksgiving, then the kids would help me unwrap it and put it up on the alter,” she said.
Mary Fennie, Hill’s cousin, painted the camels for both German nativity sets.
“The colors are really good. The camels match. The camels say 1980 on them,” Hill noted.
Another “tower” nativity also came from Hill’s trip to Germany.
The nativity has a tower with candles and the nativity inside. The heat from candles makes the blades on top spin.
Bits and pieces
One of the displays at the Tapestry Trunk was what Hill called “bits and pieces,” parts of nativity sets that were acquired over the years.
Some of the pieces may have been from nativities her parents had at home. Some are very good pieces of nativity sets, like one Fontanini Mary figurine.
“I bought this Mary at the Salvation Army for twenty-nine cents. They sell for about sixteen dollars. This is an Italian Jesus,” Hill noted.
“It took me a few years to realize this, but all nativity sets have a black king. Now why do you suppose, though, that I have so many of them? I don’t know if they just were not played with as much or what,” Hill said, noting that her bits and pieces of nativities contained more black wisemen than the others.
“I like to see the prices on the bottom. This one was FW Woolworth Company, and it was fifteen cents,” she said.
If the nativities could only talk, “they could tell us where they came from and where they’ve been,” Hill noted.
Not only does Sue Hill find nativities in stores and at thrift sales, but she also can find them in nature. “One year at the Lutheran church, at the bazaar, they had vegetables. And I bought two potatoes. And they looked like Mary and Joseph. My nephew-in-law, Steve, said ‘Oh, it’s the ‘spudtivity.’ I want to find my pictures. It looked just like she was holding a baby and he’s standing there with her. But they’re potatoes,” Hill said.
Although Hill does not recall when she started collecting nativities, she remembers being aware of them at an early age.
“We used to have a really special one at Grandma Ole’s that we would put out. I’m not sure who got it. Other than that, I can’t think back too far. We were always in Christmas pageants at church, but we never had a nativity on the alter until I bought the one in Germany. I had a really neat paper one, too, that was cut out. But I don’t know what happened to that,” Hill said.
“I never paid a whole lot for the nativities, except the one from Germany,” she noted.
“There are ones I wish I had. Like a Lennox. It would be nice to have the brand-name China nativities,” Hill said.