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Away in a manger: Woman shares nativity collection
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A Christmas star has never appeared above Kathy Rodney's home, but every December she welcomes the Christ Child into her living room for a nativity display of heavenly proportions.
Rodney lovingly wraps not just one baby in swaddling clothes, but about 200 porcelain, wooden, plastic and clay representations of the newborn savior, with literally hundreds of shepherds and their animals reverently standing guard.
During the year, Rodney's multitude of mangers simply wait for Christmas, carefully wrapped up and tucked away in closets and cupboards, with only a lucky few nativity scenes enjoying the honor of being on year-round display.
Then, on Dec. 1 — the day of Rodney's birth — the Yuma woman brings out just a portion of nativity scenes to set up and display, keeping the number to a manageable level. She limits herself to putting out only 50.
The soft-spoken retired teacher chuckles when she's asked exactly how many nativity scenes she's collected over the years. She's really not sure.
“I have no idea. I know that I have somewhere between 150 and 200. I stopped counting when I got up around 150! It would probably scare me to know.”
Although her home displays are private and enjoyed by family and friends, Rodney shares her collection with the community in a major way. For the past five years, of the 300 nativity scenes displayed during Journey to Bethlehem at First United Methodist Church, the vast majority come from Rodney's home.
“People can't believe how many different ways that the birth of Jesus can be depicted,” said the church's Joannie Wiltbank.
Rodney isn't a member of First United Methodist Church. Organizers of the annual nativity event simply heard about her grand collection and asked if they could borrow a couple — meaning at least 100.
“Kathy doesn't ask for anything from our church and never expects recognition,” Wiltbank said. “She shares her nativity sets out of the kindness of her heart.”
Surprisingly, seeing her beloved collection carted away in boxes each year doesn't make Rodney's heart flutter a bit.
“I know they are going to come back. That doesn't bother me at all. I am really grateful to the people at the church for using them. I always wanted some kind of venue to display everything, but just could never get that going.
“I was very pleased when they first asked to use my collection. I'm just flabbergasted when I see them on display, all in one area.”
That collection boasts princely proportions today, but like all great things, even Rodney's group of holy families started out small. Remarkably, she still remembers her first nativity scene, the one that began it all, the one she cherishes to this very day. That nativity scene came from the gift shop of the Sanguinetti House Museum, where Rodney was volunteering.
The 11-piece scene came from Mexico and carried a $3.95 price tag. The year was 1970.
“I just felt like the people in the scene were so united, all looking for hope. I just fell in love with it. I watched it for a couple weeks. I didn't have a whole lot of money at the time. My husband and I were newlyweds and expecting a baby. You just don't have a lot of money then and you watch your pennies.”
Thankfully for everyone who enjoys her collection — and all of the nativity scenes Rodney has adopted over the years — she made that first purchase and hasn't slowed down since.
To Rodney, each nativity scene whispers a very important message: “That things are always going to be better when we stick together. They teach us that there is always hope and that there is someone we can always turn to for help when we need it.”
That message is embodied in so many forms, too. Although the basic theme remains true in each nativity scene, the styles and materials used run the gamut. Some sets have lots of sheep and cows. Some possess a traditional look, while others reflect the colors and patterns of its home country.
Her most unusual nativity scene was made in Vietnam — completely from salt.
Many of the nativity scenes come from other countries, some purchased on Rodney's world travels.
“I've picked them up at markets and street fairs in Italy and Austria and Germany, pretty much all over the Western Hemisphere. There is one from Ireland that I had shipped home, but some of the smaller ones come home in my carry-on, depending on what they are made from.”
Friends and family obviously know what to put underneath Rodney's tree for presents, but she actually still buys many of the nativity scenes herself.
“I am more selective now than I was in other stages of my life, but when I find one I can't resist, I buy it,” she said, joking that she's actually running out of room to store the displays. “They are crowding me, but they are worth it.”
Even after 40 years of collecting, the magic remains warm in Rodney's heart.
“I just love looking at the sets — moving them around, putting some on display, putting others away. I just still can't resist them.”
Features editor Darin Fenger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6860.