Throughout the Christmas season, you’re bound to see a nativity scene or two. Local resident Toni Conway, however, has over 650 nativities after having started her collection more than 50 years ago.
In October 1961, Conway accepted Jesus Christ as her personal Lord and Savior before marrying her husband a month later. For the first time, Conway says, Christmas had a whole new meaning for her.
“I became a born-again Christian that October, and married my husband in November. So when December came around, Christmas really meant something to me,” said Conway. “The carols came alive, and the words truly meant something. So that Christmas, I really wanted a nativity set, so we ordered one for our first year of marriage. We still have that one, which is now 52 years old.”
What started out as a small collection has grown to hundreds of nativities from all over the world. On their 25th wedding anniversary, Conway was gifted with a sterling silver nativity ornament, which she says was the birth of her collection.
“Up to then I had about six nativities, and now 27 years later, I have over 650 different sets,” said Conway. “I always say that I have 650 ways to tell the same precious story that Jesus came to be the savior of the world.”
Since 1996, Conway has been sharing her nativity sets by putting them on display for the public to enjoy every two years. She says that this tradition was inspired by her late mother, who had urged her to share her collection with others to enjoy around Christmas.
“My mother was my greatest fan club,” said Conway. “She loved that I collected nativities, and kept telling me that I had to share them. I was always busy with starting a business and being involved with the women’s ministry at my church. But in 1996, my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and we almost lost her. So that December, I did my first open house and she was my first hostess. We had about 250 nativities then, and held an open house for about a week where about 60 guests visited. It was a very special time. We lost her in April of 1997, so since then I have been doing it every two years because she was right. I had to share it because it was a beautiful thing to do.”
This Christmas season, Conway held an open house from Dec. 12-15, bringing in over 725 people who came to enjoy the hundreds of nativities that she has collected over the years.
Many of the nativities have come from several parts of the world– from Germany to Kenya – whether through her own travels, or others who know about her collection and gift them to her. Others have come from mail order catalogs or online, but all of them are unique.
“They range in size, some that are about half a marble to four feet high,” said Conway. “We are always looking for nativities from other countries that are unique. I usually acquire about 10 to 30 new nativities a year.”
Although Conway has hundreds of unique and beautiful nativities, one in particular has its own special meaning.
“I have a nativity that my daughter and son-in-law made for me, where they gathered the family and dressed in costumes and had their pictures taken individually so the proportions would be correct. They cut those out and mounted them on pieces of wood for each person, so it is a family nativity and each person is an individual piece,” said Conway. “My daughter is Mary, my son-in-law is Joseph, and the grandchildren are dressed up as angels and sheep. It is very special to me.”
Conway found that she was not the only person who loved nativity sets with a passion, after coming in contact with the Friends of Créche organization – a non-profit dedicated to furthering the tradition of the Christmas nativity scene. After learning of the organization, she attended a convention they sponsored in Cleveland, Ohio where she met many others who shared her passion for nativity scenes.
“Before that I thought I was the only one,” said Conway. “There were collectors from all over the states. It was a wonderful experience.”
Although many of her nativities are more traditional, featuring ceramic, glass and stone, others range from all sorts of materials including marble, flower pots, banana skins, beeswax, horse hair, and even one that was entirely made of Coca-Cola cans in Kenya.
“I really enjoy putting the nativity sets out on display every two years for everyone to enjoy,” said Conway. “Because Christmas is about worshipping the birth of Christ.”