Nativity sets represent purpose of Christmas for Nauvoo man

Durell Nelson shared some of his sets, 50 this year, for Nauvoo's Nativity display earlier this month. (H-W Photo/Steve Bohnstedt)
Posted: Dec. 11, 2012 8:16 am Updated: Dec. 25, 2012 11:15 am
This is a hand-painted ceramic Nativity set that Nelson made 30 years ago for the first Christmas together for him and his wife, Kathy. (H-W Photo/Steve Bohnstedt)

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

NAUVOO, Ill. - When Durell Nelson was about 10, an aunt made his family a ceramic Nativity set one Christmas.

"In the '60s, they weren't really common in our area," Nelson said. "A lot of people had the little cardboard ones with the little lightbulb in the back, but to have a big ceramic Nativity was quite unique. It sort of set us apart as being the family with the big Nativity."

Intrigued, Nelson asked his aunt how she made it, which spurred an interest in making ceramics, including Nativities, and eventually in collecting more than 100 of the sets highlighting the true meaning of Christmas.

"We are religious people. We live very much a Christ-centered life, we hope, and the purpose of Christmas is to celebrate his birth and his life," Nelson said. "You can celebrate that without collecting Nativities, by all means, but for us, just all of these represent how important it is for not only us, but most of the world. We realize when we celebrate Christmas, it's one of the few times when many people of the world join together in a common cause. We don't do that for many things, but we do for Christmas."

Nelson's own world travel, a three-year stint in Switzerland on mission with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, introduced him to more types of Nativities.

"I saw the woodcarvings, the candle-powered Nativities, the pyramids that have the propellers. It was just fascinating," Nelson said. "A landlady had what we know in this country as a putz, where she had arranged her Nativity with moss and rocks and trees. It filled a whole side of her front room. That was a new experience."

Ceramic, wood-turned, candle-powered, large and small Nativities all have a place in Nelson's collection.

"Recently I've sort of been going back to those first paper ones like we had in the '50 where you cut and fold, paste, and the scherenschnitte, or European cut paper ones," he said. "Some German die-cut Nativities go up to hundreds of pieces with every kind of plant, tree, animal and occupation. A few of them actually do the entire life of Christ. I do the simpler cut-out Nativities, maybe only 20 or 30 pieces."

Simply adding more to the collection isn't the goal for Nelson and his wife, Kathy.

"At this point in time, I can't put out what I have, so I look for an unusual one or two now and then. I will say that I go after quality instead of quantity," he said. "With size being a problem, I do tend to collect smaller and smaller ones."

Nelson shared some of his sets -- 50 this year -- for Nauvoo's Nativity display earlier this month.

"That's a fun way for people to get to see them," he said.

More sets and some favorites from the display went up in Nelson's home after Dec. 6, St. Nicholas Day.

"We don't have room for Santa Claus and Nativities, so we've always done what they do in Switzerland on Dec. 6, when Santa Claus comes and brings cookies and oranges. What Santa ornaments we have, we leave up through the 6th, then we take them down and put up Nativities," Nelson said. "We've been known to put one away and get another out."

Some favorites never miss a year on display.

There's the large ceramic one, replicating the one made by his aunt, always displayed on the piano. Two or three German pyramid Nativities also go up each year along with a small black walnut Nativity puzzle the Nelsons had when their children were small.

"One little fabric set we cut and stuffed that has inkstains and stains we probably don't want to talk about, it still comes out. It's one everybody played with," Nelson said. "Our kids grew up surrounded by all these things but never really broke anything. We never thought we had to keep them out of reach. We did have a set or two they knew they could play with. The rest they pretty much knew were off-bounds."

Another features the traditional figures as moose instead of people and was bought in honor of the Nelsons' son, who is nicknamed "The Moose."

"It doesn't bother us, but some people were almost offended by the fact an animal sits in for Baby Jesus," Nelson said. "There's a lot of different interpretation. You try to define a picture of God, and is it a woman, a man, black, yellow, orange? The fun thing about Nativities is you can portray all those things, and you can have your own interpretation and it's not wrong or right. I pretty much accept anybody's Nativity. I think it's an expression of their faith. I'm not offended by the little moose even if the academics are."

The Nelsons also have European springerle molds with Nativity scenes and cookie cutters.

"I've never baked and painted a Nativity set of cookies, but I'm toying with the idea that will be my contribution to next year's Nativity display," he said. "We do have a chocolate mold for a Nativity. If I'm going to do cookies, I'll also do a candy one."

Most of the sets stay up until Three Kings Day on Jan. 6, after the European custom, or through the middle of January.

"The older I get, the longer they stay up, but we never leave them out year-round," Nelson said. "There's the charm of having something up for just a few weeks."