1,700 Nativity Sets and 100-Plus Advent Calendars — and Counting

Ohio couple shares Christmas story through unique collections.

(photo: Photos by Jerri Donohue and Susie Bergman, Maria Stein Shrine; also courtesy of the Maria Stein Shrine)

In a corner of Ohio’s Maria Stein Shrine, a child kneels on the floor and carefully re-creates the scene of Christ’s birth using painted wooden cutouts of the Holy Family, shepherds and animals.

Tim and Katheleen Nealeigh lent the shrine this Nativity scene and dozens of others. Since their wedding on Dec. 26, 1966, the couple have amassed 1,700 Nativity sets, 110 statues, icons and banners of St. Nicholas and more than 100 Advent calendars. Each year, they share these treasures in public displays throughout the Diocese of Cincinnati.

Both of the Nealeighs were teachers when they married during their Christmas break on the “first day of Christmas.” As a surprise for Katheleen, Tim made a set of paper figures corresponding to each day of the carol The Twelve Days of Christmas. The couple later acquired ornaments, dishes and tablecloths with the same theme.

 

Nativity Sets

The Nealeighs quickly began to collect Nativity sets, too. Tim Nealeigh fashioned some from beads and pipe cleaners. He followed directions in a 1929 magazine article to carve one from Ivory soap. Because he taught French, the couple spent several summers in Brittany. On each visit, they purchased “santons,” small, colorful clay figurines of the Holy Family and visitors to the crèche. The Nealeighs’ 59-piece set includes beggars, a parish priest and townspeople representing various occupations. They display it in their home year-round.

The couple’s collection encompasses Nativity sets from around the globe, in all sizes and made of materials ranging from wood to pewter. To display the tiniest ones, the Nealeighs repurpose candlesticks as pedestals.

As the Nealeighs’ two children were growing up, the family always waited until after midnight Mass to place the Baby Jesus statue in its manger. Meanwhile, the kids moved the Three Wise Men daily, inching them closer to the stable, so that they arrived on the feast of the Epiphany, Jan. 6. During Advent, the children placed their shoes to be filled with candy from St. Nicholas on his feast day, Dec. 6. On St. Lucia Day, Dec. 13, their daughter would don a white dress and a wreath of lighted candles and deliver breakfast in bed (coffee and sweet rolls) to the rest of the family.

 

Advent Calendars

Aware that children anticipate Christmas but struggle to understand when it will occur, the Nealeighs began their Advent calendar collection soon after their son was born.

 “Very small children have no sense of time,” Katheleen explained. “This gives them something very concrete they can do every day.”

Instead of following the liturgical year, Advent calendars begin on the first day of December. They usually offer kids a hands-on experience of the countdown to Christmas, often by opening a door or a window each day.

The calendars also serve as teaching tools for children.

“They get an idea that it’s not just Santa Claus and gifts,” Tim said.

Katheleen held up a book shaped like a stable. On each page, a door opens to reveal part of the Christmas story. Another calendar culminates in a recording of a child reciting a poem about the Nativity. For still another, an angel moves closer to the crib day by day. One calendar becomes a chain; each day a new link hooks to the previous one, and every link bears a Bible verse about Christ’s birth.

The couple buys their calendars half-price after Christmas in stationery shops, and they find them on eBay and in museum catalogues, too.

 

St. Nicholas

While some of their Advent calendars feature Santa’s workshop or other secular aspects of the Christmas season, the Nealeighs are purists when it comes to their St. Nicholas collection. They discovered many of the statues in religious-goods stores and commissioned others from artists whose work they admire.

“We only collect [items related to] the [saintly] bishop because I portray Bishop Nicholas at Maria Stein Shrine and in Columbus at Ohio Village,” Tim said. After careful research, he assembled the costume, including an olive wood crucifix from Jerusalem. As St. Nicholas, Tim related the saint’s life story to more than 80 children and their parents gathered in the shrine’s chapel early this month. The Nealeighs send any money generated by these appearances to a Senegalese priest they befriended years ago.

 

Sharing Christmas Treasures

Minutemen Press in Greenville, Ohio, annually allows the couple to fill its deep, old-fashioned windows with Nativity sets. This year, 42 manger scenes are on display. Twenty-five miles away at St. Charles Senior Living Center in Carthagena, the Nealeighs are exhibiting 27 Nativity sets and 19 Advent calendars. In order to present different versions from year to year, the couple keeps records of which sets they already displayed and where.

While they are glad to share their collections seasonally, the Nealeighs would like to remind people throughout the year of Our Savior’s birth and hope someone would donate space for an ongoing exhibit of the Nativity sets.

 “There are certain times when you need the Nativity,” Tim said. “You need to see it; you need to connect with that again.”

 

GO AND VISIT

“A Modern Take on a Timeless Tale,” an exhibit of 48 contemporary Nativity sets from the Nealeighs’ collection, is open to the public through Jan. 6 at Maria Stein Shrine, 2291 St. Johns Road, Maria Stein, Ohio. For information call (419) 925-4532.

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