More room for the inn: Area couple collects nativity scenes from around the world

Theresa and Michael Whalen of St. Isidore Parish in Macomb Township have just under 400 nativities in their home. Michael has been collecting nativity sets since he was a boy, and on Dec. 7-8, they will be on display at St. Anastasia Parish in Troy. (Photos by Dan Meloy | Detroit Catholic)

More than 300 nativity scenes to be displayed at St. Anastasia Parish

CLINTON TOWNSHIP — For most families, breaking out Christmas decorations is the ceremonial beginning of the Advent season.

Putting up the wreath, lights, tinsel, the Christmas tree. It’s all part of the Christmas-time décor that makes the season special.

But for the Whalen family, the holiday decorating rush is not needed, because it feels like Christmas 24/7, 365 days out of the year.

That’s because Michael Whalen and his wife, Theresa, have a most festive hobby: collecting crèches – or nativity scenes,  as they are called in the United States.

Michael Whalen estimates he probably has about 400 creches that decorate the families' Clinton Township home, from simple one-piece wooden carvings to a set from the Czech Republic which contains more than 60 individual pieceses. 

Their home is adorned with nativity sets everywhere, but this Friday the couple, parishioners at St. Isidore in Macomb Township, will pack up their creche collection and set up a display at St. Anastasia Parish in Troy.

What Michael Whalen loves so much about collecting nativity sets is seeing how different cultures depict the Nativity. In this Peruvian set, the Holy Family and Magi are seen in ponchos.

The Dec. 8-9 fundraiser, where all are invited to look at the massive collection of nativity scenes from around the world, is part of the parish’s 50th anniversary celebration, with a free-will donation for admission.  

Michael Whalen didn’t start his nativity collection to show off. He just had a general interest in craftsmanship.

“As a little kid, I belonged to St. Philip Neri Church in Detroit (which was located on the corner of Dickerson and Charlevoix on Detroit’s eastside), and they had this beautiful nativity set made in Germany I was always fascinated by,” Michael told the Detroit Catholic. “My favorite thing to do in Christmas was go visit the creche. When I was six or seven, I went to the dime store to buy my first set. I remember going to my uncle’s house in the summer to work on building the stable.”

Michael recalls going back to the dime store, buying the set piece by piece, doing odd jobs around the house to add to the set. Eventually, the young, soon-to-be collector purchased his second set.

Michael Whalen’s first nativity set he bought at a Detroit dime store dons the mantle in the Whalen living room. What began as admiring the craftsman ship of the nativity set at St. Philip Neri Parish in Detroit turned into a lifelong hobby.

“I wanted to buy more, but my mom said I already had one,” Michael said. “I just had to work on her for a while to buy my second one. She said, ‘Who needs a second nativity set.’ Thankfully, she said yes, and thankfully, she didn’t force me to give the first one away. But she said that was it.”

More than 350 nativity sets later, the passion for craftsmanship and depicting the Holy Family hasn’t left Michael. His collection features nativity sets from around the world, resembling various cultures and places where Christianity has been preached.

“It wasn’t until I had steady job and income that it really became a turning point and I started collecting,” Michael said. “One time I was in Colorado with my wife, and for the first time, I saw the Wise Men carry more than just gold, frankincense and myrrh. It was this Native American set and one of the magi had a piece pipe, the other corn and the other a bearskin. And it dawned on me, how every culture sees the nativity in their lives. Then from there, it became a hobby – not an obsession.”

“No comment,” Theresa playfully adds to the story.

Theresa grew up at St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Hazel Park, where the family only had one manger – like most families. But when they met, she knew of his hobby.

“He had a picture of when he was growing up as a young boy and he had a Christmas display in his home,” Theresa said. “Living in Detroit, he had this great big porch with their house, and he’d decorate the porch with all the nativity sets.”

“We didn’t have a real fire place, so it made for a great cave,” Michael added.

The couple got married in 1977 – when there were still fewer than 100 nativity sets.

“I knew of his interest right from the start when we first met,” Theresa said. “But it didn’t really sink in until we started travelling more. I’d always say, ‘OK, you can buy one or two,’ but then he laughs, because I’ll see something and say, ‘You know Mike, maybe you should consider this one.’”

Michael is part of a collectors group, Friends of the Creche, which boasts 300 to 400 members across North America who share ideas and items on nativity sets around the world.

 All Catholics know what the nativity scene looks like: the Holy Family in a manger, surrounding by oxen, sheep, shepherds and the Magi presenting gifts. Michael is attracted to nativity sets which take on a new perspective of a familiar scene.

Over the years, Michael and Theresa have come across many different ways various cultures and artist have expressed themselves through the nativity.

From a Peruvian nativity where the Holy Family are wearing ponchos, or a nativity from Maine where the stable was a crab shack, the baby’s crib was a lobster trap and the Wise Men were three fishermen in yellow overalls, each one has its own unique flavor to a familiar scene.  

“I like it when artists take the message and get creative with it,” Michael said. “They all say the same thing, but it’s making the message more relevant for today or wherever in the world Christ is preached.”

Michael Whalen shows off a “nativity for millennials” featuring Mary and Joseph taking a “selfie” with the Baby Jesus, and the Magi delivering gifts via Amazon while riding Segways.

When people visit the nativity display at St. Anastasia, they will see all sorts of cultures and time periods represented. Seeing the commonality and the disparities between a nativity set from Hungary in the 1950s to one from Bavaria in the 1800s, to one created in the 2000s from the American Southwest.

The couple started displaying the collection in 2001 at St. Ronald Parish in Clinton Township, and since then have displayed the collection at Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill., a storefront in Mount Clemens and for the third time, at St. Anastasia on Dec. 8-9.

Michael and Theresa spend most the day Friday doing set up, and then the nativity collection is on display on Saturday and Sunday, with teardown on Monday. It is a free will donation, with a recommended donation of $2 for individuals and $5 for a family.

This year’s proceeds will go to Mary’s Mantle, a Catholic home in Oakland Country for expectant mothers.

“The pastor at St. Ronald’s at the time was a Capuchin, and they were looking for a fundraiser at the time for St. Vincent de Paul, and they ran out of ideas,” Michael said. “So I said, ‘I got an idea for you.’  

It was a perfect match, having a creche exhibit to raise money. It’s a marriage made in a stable.”

Even when the Whalens aren’t displaying the set, it is still out for visitors to see in their home. Friends of Michael and Theresa’s daughter, Jenny, have asked why they are nativity sets out in the living room in April. But the couple explains everyone has a hobby, so why not nativity sets.

A visitor can find a nativity set almost everywhere in the Whalen home, including the cookie jar.

“Two years ago, we went down to the University of Dayton where the Marist priests were doing a series on Christmas in July,” Michael said. “A priest relayed a story about going to a woman’s house and she had a nativity on the table in July. The woman apologized for having the nativity set out, and the priest asked why she was apologizing. The priest said, as Christians, we have a cross out 365 days a year, remembering the Crucifixion and Resurrection, so why not the nativity, remembering the Incarnation.”

When the couple sets up the display, they love it when people come up to them to compliment the two on the set and the dedication it takes to amass such a collection. The conversation then turns to the nativity sets they had in their own house and the traditions that come with them.

It is that relatability to something that is so common, but so unique to each family, that makes the nativity collection so popular, and in turn, makes the nativity such a relatable devotion.

“I enjoy people coming up to us and saying we make their Christmas,” Michael said. “They tell us their own personal stories or of one in their home that is very similar. They tell their on stories, their own traditions. We had one family with 10 kids come up to us saying they have a tradition of whoever host Christmas, they get the family nativity set. So it goes from home to home.

“The nativity is the Christmas decoration I think most people can identify with, whether they see themselves as the kings, the shepherds, the angels or whoever,” Michael said. “You can find yourself in the nativity. Not sure if you can do that with an elf or reindeer or a wreath. But with the nativity, no matter who you are, you can put yourself into the story. And make it your story.”