Good Life

‘A Starry Night in Bethlehem’ Nativity exhibition

Nancy McGhee looks forward to seeing her whole collection of Nativity sets and Nativity-themed ornaments and jewelry.

She owns so many pieces, her Ferguson Township home can only show off a small fraction. Most of the sets are packed away in her basement.

This month, she’ll finally have enough space for a proper display.

For four days, more than 400 of her Nativity sets and other Nativity items from around the world will fill the Builders Association of Central Pennsylvania headquarters for the “A Starry Night in Bethlehem” show.

Sponsored by the GFWC State College Woman’s Club, the free exhibition Dec. 13-16 will include McGhee’s sets arranged on vintage mirrors and other props, holiday lights adorning walls and stars hung from the ceiling.

“We’ll transform the space into a starry night,” organizer Nancy Taylor said.

She used to help set up an annual Nativity set show at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in State College. A few years ago, that fell by the wayside, but then the State College Woman’s Club this fall decided to resume the show.

Taylor, a club member, turned to McGhee, who had loaned sets to the show before. Only, this time, Taylor envisioned a one-woman show.

The idea suited McGhee. On her “bucket list,” she wished to find a venue large enough to house all of her pieces.

“They said, ‘Well, lady, we’re going to fulfill your bucket list. Bring everything,’ ” McGhee said.

She already owned a couple of family heirlooms when she began collecting in 1997, inspired by a visit to the show with her husband.

“We were so impressed that we went around it twice,” she said. “It was just beautiful beyond imagination.”

Since then, she has been a steady customer of holiday gift shops, thrift stores and eBay, amassing rare collectibles and valuable antiques. Sets have become regular birthday and Christmas gifts.

Among the prize pieces coming to the show will be sets made from Waterford and Lenox crystal and Lenox and Wedgwood porcelain. She also owns German and Italian plaster of Paris sets from the 1930s and 1940s.

Her oldest set dates to 1911. She claimed it for $2 at a local auction, then discovered afterward that it was made in the U.S., a rarity for the time. Her husband, a model railroader, restored the figures.

Another treasured set came, indirectly, from a cousin. After his death, in honor of his memory, she bought an intricate set made by the noted artist and sculptor Gaylord Ho with some of her inheritance.

Ho created the pastel figures with a special composite of fine porcelain, resin and pearls, McGhee said.

“With the hand-polishing, they feel like satin,” she said.

On the other end, she has a set consisting of painted light bulbs. Others feature teddy bears, snowmen and American Indian art. One set was hard-carved out of olive wood from the ancient city of Bethlehem itself, and others come from Bangladesh, Mexico and several African countries.

McGhee, who called the organizers’ plans for the show “unbelievable,” can’t wait to stroll among the displays and enjoy the Christmas spirit.

“Because I want to be able to be on hand to talk, answer questions and just meet people,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”