Richard Nourse admits he has always enjoyed collecting things, but over the past six years, he has gotten serious about the hobby. He estimates he has about 1,800 nativity sets – a unique and personal collection comprised mostly of thrift store finds.
Nourse, who celebrates his 90th birthday in October, says he got interested in nativity sets after he received one as a gift in 2011. “Even though I was raised as a Catholic, we didn’t have nativity sets when I was growing up,” the Meridian, Idaho native says. As the youngest of six children, he and his siblings had to watch while the oldest brother helped decorate the Christmas tree with his parents, he recalls.
“Nativity sets were something new to me, and I like them because of my religion,” he comments. “At first, I wasn’t really collecting them; I just bought a few here and there. But then, all of a sudden, it became a big thing for me.”
Nourse has slowed down the purchases recently, but not because his interest is declining but rather because it is now harder for him to find nativity sets or figures he does not already have. He says he visits the thrift stores in his community about once a week, looking for new pieces to add to his collection. In July 2017, he was featured in the Idaho Press-Tribune.
Sometimes he finds a complete set he likes, and sometimes he finds individual pieces. “A lot of times, I’ll find a Mary or a Joseph, and I try to match to match them up,” he explains, adding that Baby Jesus is often missing from the sets. “I have a whole box of babies to use when I need one,” he says.
Nativity sets are displayed all over Nourse’s home, which his grandfather built in 1898, in almost every nook and cranny. He even has some displayed in the bathroom and on the refrigerator. He also has large plastic outdoor nativity set figures in his yard where he enjoys gardening.
The collector groups his sets according to their style, material, or, in some cases, even the way Mary is sitting or holding Baby Jesus. He has a few lighthearted sets – such as a Peanuts nativity set – but he prefers traditional sets and refuses to buy ones that have animals as the Holy Family. “To me, that’s an insult,” he remarks.
One of his favorite creches was passed down to him from his step-father’s family. It was made in Laos of bamboo. He also likes a set he recently found at a thrift store that was made in the Philippines. “It is about 16 inches tall, and it is wood-carved,” he says, “but what makes it really interesting is that Mary’s head is hallowed out and she is holding a rosary.”
One of his more ornate finds is a set of 30-inch tall Wise Men that he displays on top of his refrigerator. “They are so elaborately decorated with jewels,” he says. Another one of his favorite sets portrays several scenes of Mary and Joseph in front of open pages of the Bible and includes a music box.
In order to save space, Nourse does not display animals with his sets, and he admits that he has “boxes and boxes” of sheep, camels and donkeys.
“I’m definitely running out of room,” he says, “I find a lot of duplicates, but I like to keep looking for something different.”