Nativity sets complete holiday decor

For many families, decorating for the holidays wouldn’t be complete without a manager scene or a nativity set.

According to the Woolworth’s Museum website, Woolworth’s started selling inexpensive little nativity statuettes in the 1930s. The manufacturers kept the cost down by making the manger out of cardboard and often had a panorama scene in the back.

An opening in the rear allowed for a single light bulb to illuminate the scene. The figurines were either made out of papier mache or Plaster of Paris, and they were oftentimes spray-painted rather than brush-painted. This way these figures could sell for just a few cents each.

Most of the pieces came from Italy, but many of them actually originated in Germany. A cherished few were made of soapstone from France. If you go to estate sales, some of these nativity sets are easy enough to find. Another great place to look for them is on eBay.

Oronoco collector LaVerne Schettl has a collection of about 250 nativity sets from all over the world.


"I bought our first set about 55 years ago from dime stores. I recall, the figures were 'loose' in bins and I could buy only what I wanted. I probably paid less than $1 each," Schettl said. "My husband Myron made the stable later using willows. I took ceramic classes and made several sets — my favorite is a 16-piece set, finished in an antique-ivory look. That set graces our mantel every year since 1975."

Nativity sets can be inherited as they are passed down from generation to generation, bringing back childhood memories to some families.

"In 1988, we inherited a very special set, hand-carved in Germany by Myron’s great uncle in the late 1800s," Schettl said.

Well-known companies such as Lenox, Lladro, Hummel, Fitz and Floyd, Fontanini, Krakow and Thomas Kinkade come to mind. Some of the most stunning nativity sets typically bear these names and are oftentimes expensive, so Schettl recommends starting your collection with the main figures first and adding to it over the years.

"I was finding them at the Goodwill, flea markets, antique shops, etc.," she said. "I found each one has a story to tell. Many sets were received as gifts. Such as my favorite — a 42-piece set called 'Bethlehem Village,' a beautiful gift from our children."

Nativity sets can also be found on collectible post cards and greeting cards as pop-outs.

"Some of my older examples are a folded paper card, about 75 years old," Schettl said. "Last year I was given a Christmas post card that had been mailed in 1912. What a story it could tell."

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