Nativity scene collection reflects allness of God’s creation

Nativity scene collection reflects allness of God’s creation
A nativity scene made from discarded soda cans by a South African craftsman.

While some people might collect baseball cards, stamps, coins, dolls or even elephant figurines, Cindy Grave’s passion has a religious bent. The former long-time San Marco resident and daughter of a Baptist preacher, Graves has a passion for collecting nativity scenes, and owns more than 100.

“Actually, I’ve lost exact track,” said Graves, who recently moved to Mandarin and is administrative assistant to Southside Baptist Senior Pastor Rev. Dr. Gary Webber. “I have over 100 nativity scenes. Long ago I ran out of room to display all of them in my home or office so I rotate them. The church generously allows me to store them in a closet-storage room upstairs. I often kid the pastor that I need to keep working here because he gives me storage for my nativity scenes.”

Graves’ fascination with nativity scenes began when she was a little girl.

Cindy Graves holds Baby Jesus and Mary, carved pieces from a nativity scene made in Kenya

Cindy Graves holds Baby Jesus and Mary, carved pieces from a nativity scene made in Kenya

“My family had one of those little dime store nativities with the cardboard crèche and the little plaster of Paris figures, and I set that out every year. Dad would rig up a night light in it. I loved getting that nativity out on Christmas Eve. Father read the Christmas story out of Luke and as he read it I would move the little figures around to act out the story,” Graves recalled, adding that one year there was a crisis because Baby Jesus was missing. “It turned out my brother’s G.I. Joe had kidnapped the Baby Jesus and had hidden it in the toe of my Christmas stocking. We had to rescue Baby Jesus that year before we could continue the tradition,” she said.

Although the childhood nativity scene eventually was given to her brother, Graves started collecting nativities after she moved out on her own. “The first gift my mother gave me was a porcelain nativity set of my own, which I still have. It is special because it was the first one, but all of them are precious to me.”

Graves became interested in collecting the nativity sets after receiving a Christmas card of the Angel Tree at the Metropolitan Museum of art. Under the tree was a set made in the “Italian tradition” with not only the Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the three Wise Men, but also hundreds of figures representing the villagers. Seeing the card enlarged Graves’ perception for the first time of the Blessed event. “It made me think there are other townspeople in Bethlehem who would have found out about the baby. That’s when I started looking around at the amazing interpretations of nativity sets, especially around the world,” she said.

“People tend to picture the Christmas story with characters that look like them,” she continued. “That’s why I have so many sets that come from different countries.” Graves said when she travels abroad she tries to take home a nativity set as a souvenir. She has Asian sets with “almond-eyed” characters, African sets where the figures are black and an Irish set where each figurine looks like a Celtic statute. “The different variety of them reminds me that Christ came for the entire world, that Jesus came for everybody and not just for Americans and Christians,” she said.

Graves’ collection also includes figures made of different kinds of materials. “In poor countries, they use whatever is available,” she explained. One set from South Africa has figures made of discarded soda cans. Another from Mexico is made of recycled auto parts with a spark plug representing Baby Jesus. Church members Pat Jones of San Marco and her daughter Amy Jones Saladino of Mandarin made a set for her out of wine corks.

She even has nativities made of nails, recycled glass and plastic snack bags. “Those remind me that this was trash that was taken and turned into what I consider a treasure,” Graves said. “In the same way God can take the junk, the trash of our lives, and make it into something beautiful. There are human beings in this world that we consider throw-away human beings, worthless, but God does not consider them worthless, and he can make something beautiful out of every life.”

For many years during the Christmas season, Graves has displayed her collection in various storefronts on the Square and at Southside Baptist Church. She is not displaying the collection this year due to personal time constraints and the fact there is not a suitable venue on San Marco Square. She said she hopes to display them next year, even if it is just in the church.

One year San Marco artisan Brooks Gordon visited the display and asked if he could show a nativity scene he had carved by hand the next year. “When I saw it I immediately fell in love with it,” Graves said. “It was folk art primitive, and eventually I bought it from him. Then I realized I had a fantastic resource, a real artisan who could do custom work for me.”

Over the next several years Graves commissioned Gordon to carve a very personal nativity set, one made up of her friends and family bringing their gifts to the Baby Jesus. The set, which sits on a bookshelf in her office, includes among the many figures former Southside Baptist Pastor, Mark Wilbanks; her nieces, Christina and Lydia; her parents, Dorothy and Ray Graves; her godchildren, Julia and Jeffrey Ferrell of St. Nicholas; former Southside Baptist food service director Linda Nesmith; Bagheera, a black cat she dearly loved, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden to represent her favorite football team; and even Gordon, the master woodcarver, himself.

“If I had to choose one as my absolute favorite it would have to be this one because no one in the world has it,” she said.

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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