December 6, 2019

The spirit of Christmas: Holy Trinity couple find comfort, joy in collecting, displaying 1,000 crèches

This Nativity set, one of the roughly 1,000 crèches and Nativity-related items Larry and Amy Higdon have collected, is included among the couple’s display in their barn in Fairland. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

This Nativity set, one of the roughly 1,000 crèches and Nativity-related items Larry and Amy Higdon have collected, is included among the couple’s display in their barn in Fairland. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

FAIRLAND—Larry Higdon is near 70. His wife Amy is in her mid-50s. But catch the Fairland couple in their utility barn this time of year and you’ll find two young souls walking among rows of treasures like two kids in a candy store.

“My favorite is the one my dad built in 1963,” Larry says, while Amy’s favorite “is a little one from Italy.”

They’re talking about Nativity sets. More precisely, they’re talking about their favorites among the roughly 1,000 crèches and Nativity-related items they’ve collected in the last three years.

The mind reels a bit upon first seeing the display. In what serves as a utility barn the rest of the year, from mid-November through early January long tables and shelves laden with Nativities create a bedazzling sight several layers high and several rows deep.

Wood, porcelain, metal, plastic. Traditional, kitschy, simple, elaborate. Parts that move or spin or light up. Wall hangings, ornaments, snow globes. All in some way memorializing Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus upon his birth in Bethlehem.

“Sometimes I come in here and just sit, it’s so peaceful,” says Larry.

The members of Holy Trinity Parish in Edinburgh sit in a cozy nook at the back of the barn and tell the tale of how their collection began, and the comfort and joy it has brought them and all who come to see it.

‘I felt bad leaving them there’

“When I was growing up, I used to love getting out the Nativity scene at Christmas and seeing the big Nativity scenes at church,” says Larry.

The collection he and Amy have accumulated “kind of started when I wanted to replace the figures from the set we had that my dad made when I was growing up,” he explains.

It was 2016. He’d searched high and low for figurines similar to the ones he grew up with. Having no luck, he purchased wooden ones carved by hand at a shop in Oldenburg.

But he continued his thrift shop search for other items to add to the stable his father had made more than 50 years prior.

About two weeks after visiting Oldenburg, the Higdons were at a Goodwill store.

“I saw these three camels with wise men,” he says, pointing toward the top of a cabinet adorned by the figures. “They’re the ones who started it all. I felt bad just leaving them there.

“When I was growing up, [crèches] were sacred. We had them blessed. I just couldn’t imagine people giving them away or them getting split up.”

So began what Larry calls the couple’s “mission to save” Nativity sets.

‘Something was telling us to keep going’

They shopped in thrift stores in nearby towns.

“It got to be a kind of competition between us who could find more,” says Amy, looking with a playful grin at her husband.

“We bought 15 in one day,” she says, shaking her head at their exuberance.

Larry recounts the couple stopping for lunch and admitting, “We’ve got to stop doing this. It’s expensive, and we have no place to display them. We’ve had fun, and we hate to do it, but we need to quit.”

But as Larry pulled out of their parking space at the restaurant, he says Amy called out in amazement, “Is that St. Joseph?”

Larry drove around the block, returned to the scene and there, propped against a metal utility case, was a statue of Joseph and Mary with the Christ Child in a manger. Mary’s arms and one of Joseph’s arms were missing, all the more reason for the Higdons to save the statue.

“We didn’t know what to make of it,” says Amy. “We’d just talked about quitting, then here’s this statue just sitting by the side of the road like someone wanted it to be found. We were like, ‘Is this a sign? What does this mean?’ ”

Larry’s youngest sister, Pam Brooks, had passed away in 2015, the year before the Nativity hunt began. Pam loved Christmas.

“It felt like something was telling us to keep going,” he says. “I think she is driving this [mission].”

‘So much enjoyment, and we get to share it’

Unusual Nativity sightings kept occurring. The couple found a unique Joseph and Jesus at a Goodwill in Columbus, then found the matching Mary the same day at a Goodwill in Greenwood.

Another time, Amy saw a yard full of “free stuff.” She stopped and found a large Nativity set.

Like the statue by the side of the road, some of the Nativities need a little tender care.

“We’ve got a complete hospital kit with glue, string, tape. We call Larry,

‘Dr. Higdon,’ ” Amy says in a humorous tone.

Larry nods with a grin.

“She’ll call me to do something, and I’ll say, ‘I’m in here with a patient performing a critical surgery—I can’t just leave my patient,’ ” he says, the two laughing at their inside joke.

But laying out the crèches is serious business.

“It takes about three weeks if you do it right,” Larry explains.

The staging process begins in late October or early November with help from Larry’s four granddaughters, whom the couple adopted 11 years ago.

“We were married on July 30, 2008,” says Amy. The couple became guardians of the girls—then ages 2, 3, 4 and 5—just three days later. The adoption process was completed in 2011.

Larry recalls someone telling him, “You realize one day you’re going to have a 13-year-old, 14-year-old, 15-year-old and 16-year-old all at the same time?”

That time has come, and Larry admits the girls now complain a bit when it comes to helping set up the Nativity display.

“But deep down, they honestly do enjoy it,” he says.

So do he and Amy.

“When we’re unwrapping them, we’ll say, ‘Oh, do you remember when we got this one?’ Some are complete sets that we got for just $1.99,” says Amy.

As the Higdons walk amid the rows of crèches large and small, they pause to ponder if their collecting crèches is a hobby, a passion, an obsession or something else.

“It’s madness,” says Larry, who nevertheless calls the display “a barn-ful of awesomeness.”

But with more reflection, he again states that “something is driving this. We don’t know what, and we may never know why.

“But it’s brought us so much enjoyment. And we get to share it with others.”

Memorializing Christ’s birth, spreading joy. The Higdon’s have not just saved Nativity sets—they have collected and now share the spirit of Christmas.

(The Higdons welcome visitors to come view their collection free of charge from 1-8 p.m. on Dec. 7 and 14, and from 3-8 p.m. on Dec. 8 in their barn at 209 W. Burnside Ave., in Fairland. The collection can also be viewed by appointment on weekdays by calling Larry Higdon at 317-509-9284.)

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