Though a Catholic priest, the Rev. Richard House had no idea on earth why he had suddenly become fascinated by nativity sets 17 years ago. Now serving as pastor of St. John Church in Naches, House was on his so-called “post-cancer victory tour” of Europe following chemotherapy and radiation for nasal/pharyngeal cancer. During this vacation, nativity scenes — or crèche scenes — portraying the birth of Christ drew him like a magnet. As he wandered through shops and street markets from Berlin to Prague, it wasn’t statues or other religious items that captured his attention. Just nativity scenes.
“I bought about 20 on that 17-day trip,” House recalled. “It all began in a holiday market in Berlin, with hundreds of merchant stalls. I saw a little nativity. It’s about as small as they can come — a retablo (or small devotional scene) of the Holy Family inside a matchbox. It has doors that open. The whole thing is about 1 1/2 inches by 2 inches, made in Peru, with plaster of Paris figures.
“‘Wow, that’s cool,’ I thought, and I bought it.”
It was the first purchase in what would grow to be a collection of some 300 nativity sets of all shapes and sizes, from many countries around the world, made of materials ranging from wood to metal to plastic. Some are placed in traditional stables, some in tiny caves, others are brightly painted scenes on wood or leather. It wasn’t until House was about 200 sets into the collection, with thousands of dollars spent, that he had an epiphany.
“In 2003, I was serving as a Navy chaplain, stationed at Camp Pendleton north of San Diego,” recalled House, now 58, as he reached for the ever-present water bottle he has carried since his radiation treatments. “The base psychologists there were working with the chaplains as we prepared to counsel those who would be returning from the war in Iraq. One of the psychologists who knew that I had recovered from cancer was talking to me and asked, ‘Do you have any hobbies?’ I said, ‘No.’ Then she asked, ‘Do you collect anything?’ I said, ‘Nativities.’”
“‘Oh my goodness,’ she said. ‘Isn’t this amazing? As you’re celebrating your own rebirth, surviving cancer, you’re celebrating the birth of the Lord.’”
House was stunned as he realized the psychologist was right. “Couldn’t you have told me this a few thousand dollars ago?” he joked.
Nonetheless, the nativity collection kept growing, as House continued to travel to countries including Italy — where the first crèche was reportedly created in 1223 by St. Francis of Assisi. The story goes that St. Francis was in the small town of Grecio at Christmastime. Realizing that the monastery chapel there was too small to accommodate midnight Mass, St. Francis set up for an outdoor Mass, preparing a manger with hay and animals to draw the interest of the local people. House now has at least a dozen nativity sets made in Italy.
“When I’m visiting somewhere, I like to go to stores — whether it’s a hardware store or a grocery store,” he said. “I like to see how people live.”
And the nativity sets he’s bought reflect much of that local flavor, sometimes including a variety of other figures in addition to the traditional Holy Family, shepherds and Wise Men.
“One set that I bought in Prague has figures made of pewter,” he said. “There is a guy with a barrel in a backpack. There is a dancing bear. Someone with a hayfork. There are about 12 figures in all in a pewter frame.”
In Tijuana, Mexico, he bought a tiny nativity set with a stable — only about 1 1/2 inches tall — and figures all made from woven palm leaves.
This past summer, while visiting Amsterdam, he found an Ethiopian nativity scene painted on leather; and in Stockholm, a metal scene that resembles a Christmas “angel chimes” with figures of Mary, Joseph and the Wise Men that spin around a lighted candle.
His most intricate set, one of those made in Italy, has more than 1,000 pieces.
“It’s a village where life is going on,” he observed. “There’s a restaurant, a well, a poultry shop, an innkeeper. There are a couple dozen angels suspended from paper clips. You can see the nativity story unfold, with Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem, then in the stable where Jesus was born, then their flight to Egypt when Jesus was a small child. I think I have more people in this set than they would have had in Bethlehem at the time!”
House claims that he’s “slowed down a bit” in buying nativities. On his recent trip to Europe, he only bought three sets.
“I have a hobby now,” he joked. “I can walk away!”
House has displayed his full collection just three times — twice in Ephrata when he was pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church there, and once this past July at St. Paul Cathedral School in Yakima. (In between showings, he keeps them locked away in a secure spot outside of Naches.) During these public displays, the collection seems to strike a deep chord within others, as well.
“I have one set in which you turn a handle and all of the wooden figures bow down to Jesus,” he said. “Whether people are 8 or 80, this really sparks something in them. When I hear the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs,’ it just makes my day.”
House is very low-key about both his collection and life after cancer.
“I don’t ascribe that I’m anything special,” he said. “I don’t hear angels singing or trumpets blaring, but my perspective has changed. I have lived through pain I didn’t think I could bear and now, as a priest, I can pray with people in a way I couldn’t before. … I think that there’s more that God wants me to do. I’m grateful for the additional time and grace that I have. Hopefully I can share my gifts and skills with those who God puts in my path.”