Nativity collection draws visitors, inspires faith
Christmas comes early to Shirley Squires’ Guilford home.
Actually, it never quiet leaves her home if the scores of nativity sets she leaves on display year round count as keeping Christ in Christmas 365 days a year.
Squires, a parishioner of St. Michael Church in Brattleboro, has collected more than 1,500 nativity sets, and though she leaves many on display in hutches and in one bay of her detached garage, come August she begins setting up the others throughout her white clapboard home.
“It used to be a two-bedroom,” she said with a smile, explaining that those second-floor rooms are now the permanent home of part of her collection; one room holds a nativity set of more than 200 pieces.
She now sleeps in a daybed in the first-floor sunroom, where plenty of sunshine pours in, shimmering through glass nativities and illuminating colorful ones that fill two shelves built in front of the windows overlooking woods and fields.
When she takes the nativities down in that room at the end of January, she replaces them with scores of family photographs.
Squires is the mother of eight and has 20 grandchildren, 22 great grandchildren and two great, great grandchildren.
Members of her family have made nativities for her — one uses photographs of family members as the faces of the angels and people in the nativity scene. Another is made of shells.
Squires herself has crocheted or made of ceramics some of her sets.
Friends and family, children from St. Michael School in Brattleboro and even people she doesn’t know, have been giving her nativities since she began collecting them in the early 1990s after the death of her husband and son. She had long liked nativities and had a few sets, but collecting them at that point helped her forget the tragedies she had endured.
At least 55 countries are represented in her collection — Brazil, Italy, Peru, Ecuador, Israel, Germany, Tanzania and Switzerland, to name a few. Some nativities represent different cultures like the Amish, and some feature penguins, bears or other animals in human roles. In a couple of the scenes Joseph holds the Baby Jesus.
The nativity sets — with anywhere from one piece to a couple hundred — range from the sophisticated and expensive, the whimsical and handmade and the tiny to the nearly life-size (the latter displayed outdoors). She has a tissue box with a nativity design, paper gift bags, music boxes, ornaments and even a footstool with a nativity picture. Some are vintage, others new.
And they come from a variety of manufacturers like Lladro, Jim Shore, Fontanini, Willow Tree, Avon and Belleek, and they are made of various materials including wood, ceramic, glass, wool, beeswax, paper and wire. There’s even a Lego nativity her great grandson made, and she won a pewter one at a St. Michael’s bazaar raffle. “I took a ton of chances because I wanted it so bad,” she said.
Although much of her collection has been given to her, she has bought a some — some on sale, some on trips, some in increments. It’s difficult for her to pick a favorite, but the one her daughter, Donna Rhodes, made with photos of family members is one of them along with the large Fontanini set in an upstairs room.
And even though she is surrounded by nativity sets, Squires never feels like there is too much Christmas. “It’s my favorite time of year. It’s always been my favorite time of year,” she said.
Family members and friends help her to place the nativity sets throughout the house and to install lights into some of the montages and to add special touches like gold-painted “Pray” bricks and circular birch stands. Some of the sets are in handmade stables, others stand uncovered.
Asked if she’d ever seen a nativity set she didn’t like, Squires smiled: “I must have, but I don’t remember.”
From the first of December until the end of January, Squires opens her home by appointment to those who would like to see her nativity collection, often wearing a special light purple nativity sweatshirt. “When I see the joy on people’s faces, it makes it all worthwhile,” said the 89-year-old who is living in the house she grew up in.
She makes friends with some of her visitors, and some have returned each year since she began displaying her collection for others to see. She receives nearly 300 visitors to see the nativities each year.
“It would not be worth having a collection if I didn’t share it,” the energetic Squires said.
This is her 21st year doing so; she only missed one year after triple bypass surgery a half dozen years ago.
As much as she enjoys her collection, what the nativities represent is what is most important: her faith. “Looking at them keeps it in my mind that it all started with a little baby,” Jesus, she said.
“Without my faith I would not have gotten through all the struggles,” she said, pointing to a photograph of one of her grandsons and his girlfriend who died in an automobile crash. “My faith means everything to me.”
Squires’ daughter, Debbie, said her mother’s faith is inspiring. “I love her faith, the belief that she has in her heart that overflows.”
Squires, who enjoys photography and card making, is an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion and St. Michael Church and volunteers with several charitable organizations and visits the sick and elderly.
To make an appointment to see her nativity collection, call her at 802-254-2696.
—Originally published in the Winter 2019 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.