Many American families launch the Christmas season by bringing out their nativities. Carol Olthoff of Great Falls joins them in this significant act of love for the meaning of Christmas, but instead of one nativity scene, she brings out 1,200 scenes for hundreds of visitors to see.
“It’s my passion to share the meaning and story of the Christ child,” said Olthoff.
Carol started collecting nativity scenes approximately 35 years ago. As she collected them, she realized there were so many artistic versions to the story with Mary, the mother; Jesus, the infant; and Joseph, the father as the essential figures.
Other figures often added to nativity scenes were angels, animals, shepherds, and the Magi along with their camels. Each time Olthoff saw new versions in different art media, or through another artist’s interpretation, she added them to her collection. She has scenes made from Lenox china to hand-formed pieces made of bread.
It is difficult to determine the age of the different scenes, so Carol has figured out the best way to know. She depends on the visitors flocking to the displays. They will often say their family had a particular set when they were children. Olthoff inquires when that might have been and learns the age of a particular scene.
Christmas decorations seem to be items that become available at estate sales or left behind when people move, so Carol often finds nativity sets in second-hand, thrift, or antique stores.
“I have 20 extra baby Jesuses on hand if I need them,” she said. “You simply can’t have a creche without the baby Jesus.”
People started giving nativity scenes to her. “If people give me a nativity scene that I already own, I give away the one I have and keep the one that is given to me. I then add their names to that scene,” said Olthoff.
She received a nativity scene from a woman whose daughter had passed away. It had belonged to the daughter, and the elderly mother felt that Carol displaying it in the years to come would be an appropriate memorial to her daughter.
At first Olthoff decorated her house with nativity scenes and opened her home to visitors during the Christmas season. Then her collection became too large. Because she wanted to share her collection, she approached the Dryer brothers, owners of the Columbus Center, to see if they would allow her to set up on the first floor of the Center. They were delighted with her idea and also gave her storage space, so she could keep the decorations at the Center year-round.
To enrich each scene, she also uses tables, ladders, shelving, ornaments, and garland to make the scenes flow together and enhance the atmosphere of Christmas.
The largest nativity is almost 4-feet tall, and the smallest is the size of a thumb nail. With Christmas music playing in the background, she adds little thought-provoking signs throughout. Often the wording is made from Scrabble letters.
When asked if she has ever lost a nativity scene or part of one, Olthoff smiled.
“When I was setting up the display at the front entrance of the Columbus Center, one of the owners came in with his large golden lab dog, Sailor. The dog sniffed out the displays and took hold of one of the Wise Men and moved away with it in his mouth,” she said. “When the owner saw what the dog had done, he said, ‘Sailor, put it back!’ The dog trotted back over to the scene and dropped the figurine into its rightful place in the creche, so the answer is ‘no.’ Everything always remains exactly in place until we take it down in January.”
Olthoff and her two elves, Mary Crowell and Joyce Young, have been setting up and exhibiting the different nativity scenes for approximately 10 years. As many as 1,121 people have signed the guest book in one year, and this year, with additional nativity scenes, the display promises to be even better.
“People are sometimes hesitant to walk among the displays that line the hall, because they think there is a charge,” said Olthoff. “There is no charge—and no donation box. The only thing I ever accept is when someone wants to give me a nativity set.”
Taking a tour of the many Christmas nativity scenes is a great way to get in the spirit of Christmas.The nativity scene display will be open to the public starting on December 9, continuing until January 7.
Tours will occur from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays.
Displays are found on both the first floor near the front entrance and on the second floor on both sides of the elevator. Most people spend about 30 minutes looking at the distinctiveness of the scenes, but some stay as long as two hours, to really examine the uniqueness of each creche.
The Center is handicapped-accessible from the back entrance of the Columbus Center at 1601 Second Avenue North in Great Falls. MSN