Canton woman has year-round nativity set

CANTON – Roberta Willis is never far from a reminder of God sending his son to be the Savior of the world.

Willis, a member of First Baptist, Canton, not only collects nativity scenes, but displays most of her 57 sets in her home year round.

“I can’t see putting them away. What’s the use of having them out for one month of the year? Why hide them?” she said.

The crèches and crèche pieces of paper mache, plastic, wood, glass, and ceramic line bookcases, cabinet tops and a converted gun cabinet. Each carries a sentimental story.

Her first one came from Woolworths in Keokuk, Iowa, 50 years ago. Before that, there was no room in the small house for a nativity scene. It had paper mache figures, which broke when her now-grown son Robert played with them. She had assumed they were plastic figurines and replaced the broken pieces with hard plastic figurines.

She made one set of dark brown figurines in a ceramics class – opting not to do detail coloring. This resides in a barn made by her late husband Stan from shingles salvaged from her grandfather’s razed barn before the debris was burned.

There is the one given by Stan in 2005, the last he gave before his death. One is a set of Christmas nativity thimbles. There is the candle music box nativity set.

“Many of them are music boxes,” she said. The songs they play or once played include “Silent Night,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” or “O, Little Town of Bethlehem.” One music box nativity speaks a few words of the birth of Jesus.

Lewis County Nursing Home residents gave some when Willis was their hairdresser. These include the Christmas card with wood-veneer nativity characters, one ordered through the Danbury Mint, and one of tall willow-tree figurines.

She never intended to have a nativity collection. She bought the first nativity. Her second one was the candle music box given by a military friend. Her third one was the ceramic one she made. The collection took off from there.

“There is a saying that three of something is a collection. People decided when they got my name for gifts, ‘Ah, we’ll get Roberta a nativity scene.’”

To most of the crèches, she has added the name of the giver and the year.

Sets are from Peru, Italy or Germany, but ironically, many are made in China.

“That’s not a Christian country,” she said.

The sets may purport one area of the world and be from another. A bright green one bought on a mission trip to Puerto Rico was made in Peru. Two she acquired of Eskimos as Nativity characters in an igloo “barn,” were made in China.

Many of the sets, including one about two feet tall, are gifts from family members.

“My sister told me it looked smaller in the catalog.” This particular nativity on a hill and among a bushy tree came with ten foam boxes of accompanying characters. Most of the characters stay in storage, as Willis doesn’t have room to display all of them.

A Precious Moments® set with nothing to do with motorcycles, is called her “Harley Davidson” set, because her husband and son would go buy Harley Davidson shirts, but they didn’t bring her anything. When she complained, Stan bought the Precious Moments® set and divvied the set a piece at a time for several gift-giving occasions.

For the most part, she no longer buys nativities for herself, unless it is an unusual one.

Each set is her favorite for different reasons – the first she got, the last from Stan, etc.

Many of the sets have lights and she often leaves some of these on “to show the light of Christ.”

“Many people forget the real meaning of Christmas. It helps me remember, and I tell others. We have to remember Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus,” she said.