850 signs of the season

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Family to again display vast nativity set collection

Plenty of people know not to walk up the stairs and to tread lightly while in Helen and Bill Holder’s house at this time of year.

Once again, the couple have filled every nook and cranny of their home with nativity sets, which now total about 850. Helen started collecting the sets sometime near 1967 and has never stopped. And since the first Christmas in the City 24 years ago, the couple have been opening their home to the public for tours. The couple have set 1 to 5 p.m. Dec. 15 and 16 as open house dates, when anyone can stop by and check out the massive collection. Ever since they have gone public, the Holders have also encouraged $1 donations, which they give to the Salvation Army.

While Helen years ago told herself she was going to limit herself to one new nativity set per year, she hasn’t made good on her word.

“I didn’t limit myself to one a year,” Helen joked.

In fact, Helen bought another set as recent as several weeks ago, and it now sits among the hundreds of others, which required about a week’s worth of treks back and forth from the basement. That’s where Bill comes in.

“I don’t have a lot to do with them, other than taking them out of the basement and putting them back in the basement when we’re done,” Bill joked.

While Helen does the collecting, Bill still knows plenty about the collection. Every piece has a story.

There’s the first set Helen bought for $180, and there’s a carved, wooden set from Germany that stands out. Another scene came in the form of a chocolate bar. Though it has since been digested, the Holders took a picture and added that to the collection as well.

“We go on and on about the stories of these things,” Bill said.

The sets hang from hooks, sit on shelves, block the stairway and are the only such ornaments on the Christmas tree. Some even move on their own.

The kitchen table is set with fine dinnerware — plates that also show the story of Jesus’ birth. Curtains, blankets, oven mitts, painted eggs, an oatmeal box, cookie cutters, pictures, towels, snow globes and sponges are just another portion of the list. Some are cheap, simple toys, while others show other cultures’ perspectives about the story of Jesus’ birth.

The sets range in size from a watermelon seed carving to large figures that fill windows. They’re made out of metal, wood, string, household scraps and delicate ceramic, just to name a few materials, and come from Nigeria, Canada, Venezuela, Germany and many other places, as well.

Helen’s not sure if she will ever stop collecting. But those who talk to the Holders will find out: That’s not likely.

“I don’t know,” Helen said, “there’s always another one.”

Clearly, the Holders know the story Christmas like no others.

“I just believe that Jesus came for all sinners, no matter what your shape or size or how you look,” Helen said.

“Church is important to us,” Bill added, who also teaches a bible study.

But for those who don’t know the story, the Holders have enough books to go around, too.

The Holders will leave their nativity sets on display through January. Then, they go back into Helen’s custom-made, styrofoam holders, into labeled tubs and to the basement. There, they will wait until next December — and more than likely, grow in numbers.

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