Goessel women cherishes collection of nativity sets

Staff reporter

As any collector knows, it usually starts out innocently enough.

You buy one or two items and people realize that you like a certain thing, and before you know it, people are buying them for you.

And you like receiving them.

Such was the case for Leann Toews of Goessel.

In the 1980s, she purchased three nativity sets. Before long, she was receiving sets from friends and families — and loving it!

Today, she has 50 sets in her house to enjoy.

"It's interesting because I have no two sets alike," Leann said.

And she's right.

Even though some of the sets are similar in how they're made or from the same country, there are no two sets alike.

The retired English teacher and her husband, Jerry, a retired instrumental music teacher, both in the Goessel school district, have enjoyed traveling to other countries before and after their retirement.

With some visits, Leann looks for nativity sets.

In the 100-year-old Toews farm house, the tour begins in the family's dining room.

A ceramic set from Spain, one with African roots, and another from Native American artist Autumn Borts are set up on a buffet.

One of the more interesting sets is a straw hut that Jerry bought for his wife at The Etc. Shop at Hillsboro.

The hand-carved figurines depict Asian people as does the straw hut on stilts. Water buffalo and an elephant are among the animals around the "stable."

"I don't have much information on it so I'm just guessing," Leann said, regarding the possible origin of the set.

One of Leann's favorites is the pottery nativity set created by Borts of New Mexico.

"It is a classic art piece," she said.

The Toews' youngest daughter, Annaken, formerly lived in Mexico. When the couple went to Mexico to see her, they purchased a nativity set.

The figurines depict Mexican natives with brightly colored clothing and ornaments in their hair.

A nativity set from popular artist Jim Shore also is among the collection. Shore is known for using quilt patterns in the apparel of the figurines.

When Jerry went to Honduras as part of a mission trip with the Mennonite church, he brought a gift home to his wife. This nativity set is a mural on tree bark. Special dye was used to color the figures on the approximately 8x10-inch hanging mural.

Why nativity sets?

"It's an expression of my faith," Leann said.

Early on, the Toews decided not to have Santa Claus be the focus of Christmas with their two daughters, Katrina and Annaken. Instead they concentrated on the true meaning of Christmas.

"We're not opposed to Santa but wanted to make sure the true meaning isn't lost," Leann said.

As the tour continues, Leann points out an interesting set made of seed pods. Katrina, the director of a ballet company in Washington, D.C., gave her mother the interesting set that she purchased from Ten Thousand Villages. The weightless and delicate figurines were made in Honduras and consists of seed and weed pods and plant stems.

Other sets were given to Leann from a foster daughter who lived with the family.

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A wooden folk art set is displayed in the bathroom.

An Indian set from Santa Fe, N.M., is detailed with a braided mane on the donkey, cornflower girl, and drummer boy.

Other sets include a wooden set from El Salvador, a bread dough set from Ecuador, and a brilliantly-colored wooden set from Honduras.

An olive wood set was given to the family from friends in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Upstairs in the century old house, there is a set from Peru, and one of Leann's first sets she bought. It's a cloth set from Pine Creek Farm, in rural Goessel.

A cornhusk set from Prague was a gift from daughter Katrina.

"It appears to be more of the orthodox religion," Leann said, noting the religious icons in the set.

That's another thing she enjoys about the sets. Native characteristics are visible depending on the origin of the sets.

In 2004, Leann and Jerry visited the Ukraine and purchased a unique hand-painted, wooden, gourd-shaped set.

Another set on a night stand also is unique and simple. Joseph and Mary are larger flower pots with Jesus being a miniature pot. A puzzle nativity set was made by a family friend.

The oldest set Leann has only has a Joseph and Mary. The age and origin is unknown but it is obvious that the set has a history.

Leann keeps track of her prized collection by filing information on the set as she obtains it.

"I enjoy going back and remembering who gave me which sets," she said with a smile. She also enjoys arranging the displays each year.

The sets were on display a few weeks ago at the Goessel Mennonite Heritage Museum.

"I find out so much more about them when others look at them," Leann said. Some share stories of similar sets or know background information.

In a few weeks, the sets will be packed away and stored until next year.

From miniature to large, each nativity set has a story and special meaning to Leann. She knows these gifts from friends and family came from their hearts and enhance the true meaning of the season.