For two weekends (Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays) each December, a beautifully restored old opera house in Ainsworth, Iowa, is transformed. That’s when retired teacher Michael Zahs fills the building with a display of his huge collection of nativity scenes from around the world.
Well, that’s not entirely true.
Zahs shows off much of his collection of 2,139 sets. But there’s not enough room for all of his nativities. So scores of them remain in storage, waiting their turn another year.
Zahs is rightfully proud of his nativities.
“We say this is 2,000 different ways of telling the same story,” he says.
Zahs received his first nativity from an aunt when he was 5 years old, and he’s been collecting ever since. About 200 individuals and groups also have donated sets to Zahs’ collection. Many are from his former students who have traveled all over the world and bring back sets to him.
The historian, preservationist and speaker, has a sense of humor. When I asked him during a recent visit how long it takes to put up his annual display, with a chuckle he quickly answers, “several lifetimes.”
In reality, “I’ve never really timed it,” he admits. “Most of what you see was put up from a Monday to a Thursday.”
Zahs is one of a group of people who bought the opera house and restored it. They borrowed a lot of money to do so and are using the income from receptions and other events, including a large, annual display of feed sacks, held there to retire the debt.
All of the nominal $5 charge that people over age 10 pay to view Zahs’ nativities goes to the opera house.
“It was built as an opera house in 1915, the third opera house in Ainsworth,” Zahs notes. “It served as an opera house just a few years.”
Later the high school played its basketball games in the long, narrow auditorium, students graduated there and community movies were shown there.
Zahs says the building has been restored to look the way it had in it its prime.
“But we put in (modern) heating and air conditioning. We thought that would be a nice touch,” he says with a smile.
During our visit, as recorded Christmas carols play in the background, Zahs happily tells visitors about his favorite or unique nativity sets, the oldest of which dates to the 1600s.
A sheet of paper accompanies each nativity. On it is a number showing the chronological order in which Zahs received it. Also listed is the year the nativity was made, the year it became part of Zahs’ collection, what material it’s made from, the number of pieces in it and its country of origin.
If a sheet indicates China/USA, explains Zahs, “that means it was made in China for the U.S. market.”
The sheet also details any special information. As an example, Zahs points out a set made in China in which “everybody’s looking at the sheep. None of them are looking at the baby.”
Another unusual nativity is a one-piece set purchased from among many at an Iowa City store that had no baby Jesus in them. “Apparently nobody noticed that,” says Zahs.
Zahs says, “People ask, ‘What’s your favorite?’ Well, my favorites are the stories that go with them.”
The nativities, which represent about 100 countries, are made of made of materials as diverse as banana leaves and ash from Mt. St. Helens. A one-piece set is carved of ironwood. Sets from Peru are made from clay. A set from Niger is carved out of stone.
Zahs owns some wooden sets from the Holy land. “Some of those trees were alive when Jesus was there. By law they can only carve from the trimmings. You can’t cut down a tree.”
He picks up a set from Bolivia to show us. “Bolivian sets are very small, and everybody is just always very, very happy.”
Colors and other features vary.
Says Zahs: “Colors are very significant. In sets from Europe, Mary is almost always in blue, for purity. Joseph is in brown for insignificant.
“Sets from Latin American countries very often have a prominent chicken,” says Zahs. They are a sign of prosperity and good luck.
Copyright 2012 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.