Nativity Set History

By: Dr. Dennis Ohrtman​

Nativity sets multiply in the dark.  An eccentric great grandfather, Dr. Dennis Ohrtman, Nez Perce County Historical Society treasurer, packs them away in June (at his wife’s insistence) and by Christmas there are more.  He, like so many others in the county’s living history, is a collector.  Collecting Nativity sets is not his only attempt at five decades of camouflaged hording:  ties, shoes, pens, and elephants (in spite of his political vent).  And, there is always a lost baby Jesus at the Ohrtman house.

We are doing Christmas at the Museum from December 12th to January 6th with Dr. Ohrtman and his Nativity sets (except Dec. 18th, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day) in the 1st Territorial Capitol replica.  Admission for historical society members is free.  Museum entrance fees will apply for others. The fee also covers entry to the Museum and the Heritage House where a few of the sets will be on display.  It may be more than you can see at one time, so we will find a way for you to come a second time to do Museum exploring and Christmas shopping at the Museum.  We are hoping Dr. Ohrtman will hit 200+ sets displayed, including his Nativity tree with Holy Family and Wisemen ornaments.  Previously, his largest was 165 of his 230-240 sets in his home several years ago.  He suggested “it was like living in a bad department store for three months.”

Dr. Ohrtman doesn’t claim to have a professional collector’s show.  It’s an eclectic collection ranging from his first set, a wedding present 51 years ago, to small dollar-store-sets given to him by his grandchildren.  Very few have come from the InterNet.  Some from thrift stores join those that he and wife Carol collected in Mexico and Puerto Rico. He has visited his favorite store in Puerto Rico (featuring imported sets from Peru) 13 times.  He, allegedly, was seen coming down the steep hills of old San Juan in the rain with 13 sets six large bags to his car that Carol had parked illegally to wait for him.  She sweet-talked the policeman out of a potential fine.  When the official saw 13 baby Jesus sets bouncing down the street in over-sized bags, he just shook his head. 

Each set comes with a story, a color and texture:  painted on a feather, a coconut shell, or ceramic bisque.  There are identical sets painted five or six ways.  Others are metallic Origami, pewter; straw, glass, and laser-cut wood.  Some are crocheted or cross-stitched.  He loves sets of mice, children, bears, moose and dinosaurs dressed for the Christmas plays.  Every member of his family has added to his collection including a thrift store gem:  a 1932 Sears Roebuck mail-order pre-Amazon set.

For 12 years Dr. Ohrtman painted sets with his sister in her ceramic shop when he visited his mother who was in an Iowa care facility.  Once they did 40 sets of 20 pieces each in a week.  He watched sets being made in Ecuador and Puerto Rico from marzipan, by poor people working with plaster in the streets of Mexico and particle board in El Salvador; and by family members.  He confessed to having eaten gingerbread and candy sets made by grandchildren and another piece of gingerbread artwork made by daughter Loralee. He will probably sneak in a Holy Family cookie snack again this year.

Come see what he unpacks and what else is in your county museum.  We are no longer the Luna House Museum, but there may be a lunatic in the Museum for three weeks of visual overload.  Join him. 

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