Deck the Halls

25-plus nativity sets collected over many years star at Christmas time

Former Alpena resident Sue Santamour Gale doesn’t just have a single nativity set she puts up annually during the Christmas season – it’s more like 27. Over many year’s time she has collected a wide variety of nativities that range from the traditional to musical to handmade.

While she treasures each one either because of the person who presented it to her, where it came from or how beautiful it is, the meaning behind the nativity story counts just as much in her book.

Prior to retiring from MidMichigan Medical Center a couple of years ago, Sue spent nearly 25 years helping to deliver and care for babies as a registered nurse at the hospital. Some years, that meant working on Christmas eve.

“After having children and then working in OB for close to 25 years, I became intrigued and fascinated with all Mary went through to give birth to Baby Jesus,” Sue said. “I was very mindful of this whenever I worked during the night of Christmas Eve and we had a laboring mother, especially if she gave birth, and even doubly so if it was a son.”

Her collection includes many from foreign lands, such as a hammered out metal set from Haiti, a tiny carved set from Mexico and a handcarved one from Israel. Two of her favorites are the set from Israel and a hand-stitched version that tells the nativity story. Both were given to her years ago by a close friend, Connie McNeil, who also is a former Alpena resident.

“The hand-stitched set Connie made in 1992,” Sue said. “She did a set for her family and a set for ours. There is a name and date cross-stitched on the back of each piece for each family member. In order, the story starts with Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth, carrying a son (John), finding out that she was carrying Jesus, then the journeying to Bethlehem and the manger scene, etc.”

As for the handcarved nativity from Israel, Sue’s friend brought it back to her after a trip to the Holy Land with her husband, the Rev. Chuck McNeil.

Another of Sue’s favorite sets is actually two combined into one.

“The larger was a ceramic handpainted one made for me by my first husband as a huge surprise Christmas gift in 1980,” she said. “I was expecting our first child and the Nativity had added meaning. He also made/painted the smaller set to match for my Mom, who was totally blind but could feel the pieces.”

Sue’s collection also features five or six sets that light up, some nativity ornaments, and even nativity socks and a nativity apron. Along with all her nativities, Sue has collected bells for many years. Another of her favorite nativity sets combines both her love for bells and the manger scenes.

“I was given a unique nativity inside a bell with a tea light in the background to simulate the poor lighting there would have been in the stable, but “the light of the world has come” and “ring the good news,” Sue said.