Nativity Collector Displays 1,500 Christmas Creches

American Icons, Odd Collections
on November 29, 2013
Ken Klotzbach Hundreds of Nativity sets and scenes adorn Jan Johnson’s Cannon Falls, Minnesota, home.

Year-round, more than 200 Nativities adorn an entire room in Jan Johnson’s home in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. Made from cardboard, clothespins, fabric, glass, plastic, porcelain, yarn and wood, the scenes have been carved and cast, constructed and crocheted, stitched and stuffed, hand-woven and mass-produced.

The only requirement for inclusion in her collection, which numbers near 1,500 Nativity scenes and sets is a depiction of the birth of Jesus Christ. “It doesn’t make any difference if it’s a 10-piece set or if it’s an ornament with one Baby Jesus on it,” Johnson, 69, says. The baby is considered a Nativity.”

Nativity sets from more than 37 countries — including Ecuador, Germany, Italy and Israel — uniquely portray the story of Christmas in each culture represented. “They all tell the exact same story, yet in so many different ways,” Johnson says.

Her collection also includes Nativity depictions on coffee cups, jewelry, 19th-century prints, pillows, puzzles, wind chimes and a package of cocoa mix imprinted with an image of the Christ child’s birth.

Most of Johnson’s Nativities are gifts from family and friends, including Linda Buller, 61, of St. James, Minnesota, who searches thrift shops, garage sales and estate sales for Christmas crèches. “A lot of people think I’m the collector,” Buller says. “I tell them I am and that I store my collection at Jan’s house.”

Johnson’s husband, Walt, 70, also contributed to the collection. A latch hook rug that took four Minnesota winters for him to complete hangs prominently on the wall inside their entryway.

Jan has numbered and catalogued each Nativity, and each Christmas season she exhibits part of her collection at churches and community events, and devotes up to two months arranging an elaborate display in her modest home.

“I’m tweaking all the time,” Jan says as she gently shifts Baby Jesus to the center of her grandmother’s 1930s Nativity set.

On Oct. 1, Jan begins cleaning, clearing, purging and packing the usual contents of every room in the house. She wipes walls, moves furniture and assembles shelves to showcase her treasures for holiday guests.

Then Jan and Walt haul 65 large plastic storage bins from the basement to the upstairs living room. Jan takes it from there, unpacking her collection, stringing garland and lights, and assembling and hanging Nativities in every room and hallway.

By Dec. 1, the Johnsons’ home is aglow with Nativities, from the smallest—a hollow sandstone egg-shaped ornament from the Bahamas and containing carved quarter-inch figures of Baby Jesus and his parents Mary and Joseph — to the largest — painted plywood figures, standing 4 feet tall on the front lawn, reminding guests about the reason for the Christmas season.