Nativity collection opens doors for witness

Karen Smith serves on the Executive+Administrative Team at the Arkansas Baptist State Convention while her husband, Dennis, serves at First Baptist Church in Sherwood. She loves to travel and shares Jesus wherever she goes.

I didn’t set out to collect nativities, it just happened. Now I am up to 467 sets, plus ornaments. Some are fancy, many are simple. They are made of pottery, paper, ceramic, wood, glass, metal, plastic, cloth and organics. We have sweatshirts and neckties, a cookie jar and windchimes, candle holders and plates, flags and stockings and even a shower curtain that looks like a giant teaching picture. Some make music, one rocks, but they all portray the wonderful story of God sending His Son to earth because He loves mankind. 

I have a faint memory of standing with my mother as a child in a variety store looking at rows of figures and “helping” her pick the best donkey, cow and dog to add to our family’s Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus scene. It was unpacked with celebration every year and a few more characters were added as time passed. I now have those figures and a few have price tags on the bottom—some as little as 29 cents. 

In college I bought a book of cardboard punch-out figures and made a set for my dorm room. 

After I was married my grandmother gifted us with a handmade ceramic set. When children arrived, I wanted a set that could be handled so we found some wooden figures.  

Then more nativity sets started appearing as gifts from family and friends—especially church friends. I love unpacking them and thinking about the people that have shared with me through the years. Many of these people are now with Jesus.   

Once a sweet church friend named Martha gave me a plain white set with many figures. But, when I unsealed the box and set out the characters, no Mary could be found. My friend said, “this will never do” and she ran back to the store to make an exchange. It always makes me chuckle that Martha had to go find Mary. 

Many sets have been handcrafted. Once our pastor helped someone tear down a shed. He saved some of the wood and he and his wife cut nativity sets from it as gifts for the church staff families. I helped some seamstresses make world flags for our church’s international missions offering promotion. In turn, they made a cloth nativity for me.   

I have several sets that are memories from mission trips and from friends thanking me for being prayer partners for their trips. Several have joined the collection after WorldCrafts parties. Once an ABSC coworker handed me an African set to “lighten her load” as she returned to the mission field. The international sets usually reflect native dress and customs. 

Sometimes we invite friends and neighbors into our home to enjoy our display. I received a note following such an “open house” saying that on the drive home their family discussed why God sent Jesus to earth and the daughter prayed to receive Christ as Savior. 

When we traveled to China, I carefully packed a banner into my bag. I wanted to be photographed with it on the Great Wall, much like a climber on Mount Everest. I never dreamed it would open the door for me to tell the Bible story to our English-speaking guide and briefly explain the plan of salvation. 

Lately I have become a rescue unit as several friends have shared nativities, especially when dissolving households of elderly parents. Once, friends walked up to me at church on Sunday morning carrying a sizeable box. They said, “We went to an estate sale and apparently someone else was a collector…here.” In the box were more than 30 antique nativity sets.  

I treasure them all as heirlooms. They represent sweet memories and one of the sweetest stories.  You can probably guess that two of my favorite Christmas songs are Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem and Some Children See Him.  

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