Bethlehem in Denton County
A Husband's Labor of Love to House God's Gift of Love
On our family farm between Sanger and Denton, Texas, just east of Interstate 35-N, stands a tribute to close to forty years of something more than simply avid collecting. We call this tribute Bethlehem in Denton County because it houses an extensive collection of reminders of just how much our awesome God loves us. The building itself is also a tribute. It was built as a labor of love to me to house God's Gift of love to the world.
I never set out to collect anything, not even nativities… and certainly not a collection like I now have! Let me tell you how I actually just "happened" into it. Nearly half a century ago when my children were preschool age and were stretching their artistic wings, I introduced them to ceramics one summer day. While they painted their little animals, I painted a set of nativity figures for our home. I painted them brown…all of them…just plain brown, then painted them black and wiped off the black for that antique wood look. That brown set in 1970 was the first in a collection that now numbers over 3,500. But it isn't about numbers or quantity. It's about God's Love.
A couple of years later #2 in the collection arrived as a Christmas present made by my great-aunt. It is a scene of small figures in perhaps a tuna can, turned on its side with a Christmas card cutout of Baby Jesus glued inside & little dime-store figures of Mary & Joseph added.
Then another one the next year, and then another, and soon I was hooked…not collecting…just accumulating! Family and friends were generous to me. Shopping outings became searches for new, original, "different" nativities.
Nativities are nice to collect. They are beautiful, meaningful, and they are seasonal …. and after Christmas you pack them away with the other Christmas decorations. Then after a few years you notice that a few favorite nativities don't get packed away, and the newest ones from those "after-Christmas-sales" and mid-year birthday presents are still sitting on the mantle when it is time to bring out the Christmas tree again!
A few on the mantle, a few in the bookcase, and eventually the collection outgrows the living room and spreads throughout the house. Then it outgrows the house! Finally you just have to begin storing them away in carts and boxes because you simply cannot keep up.
That's when I decided I needed a detailed cataloging system for inventory. It was important to record the "when, where and from whom" each ornament or figurine or set had come. Each new scene or ornament was photographed, numbered, logged and then packed away. Every Baby Jesus, Mary and Magi was accounted for as my 1-inch, overstuffed, 3-ring binder grew to fill a 3-inch notebook, then SIX 1-inch binders! Then I bought a digital camera and began storing them in my computer.
Bethlehem in Denton County is not about showing off what I have, it is about sharing God's Gift, Baby Jesus, with the world…at least with my part of the world. And now that includes YOU!
But allow me to go back to 1999 when my husband Monroe knocked my socks off one day. He had a plan: he offered to build a gallery in the corner of our country yard to house my collection; a sanctuary for meditation, he said; a place of reflection and refuge, a retreat from the stress and chaos of today's world. (He also figured it was the only way to regain his private domain of our home!) And so the idea for Bethlehem in Denton County was conceived with a 2-fold purpose. But I think God had a larger plan. He had planted the seed for a new ministry, one that would share the joyous news of our Lord's birth, one that would educate visitors in the terminology and symbolism related to this Birth, and one that would reinforce the importance and value that God places on family.
My sweet husband would come out of his retirement to construct a shelter for the collection--a place dedicated to displaying the many mangers and cribs. It would occupy a corner of the yard that once was reserved for our children's sandbox…the same area where Monroe's grandparents, Jacob & Elizabeth Trietsch, had settled after immigrating from Germany in the late 1800s to settle in the Blue Mound community north of Denton.
With a Bachelor’s Degree in Industrial Technology and decades of life on the farm under his belt, he considered himself more than capable and qualified to take on the task, even though I offered to pay from my savings for hiring it done.
Let me sidestep a moment to tell you about this man I married back in 1966, this man with the big heart. He's the carpenter with an appreciation for quality workmanship and the ability to produce it. He's a shy, quiet, reserved kind of guy who doesn't like to be in the spotlight, much preferring instead to be behind the scenes, building or doing something with his hands. He is an outdoor person who sees God's handiwork in all of nature. He is a wood craftsman who has designed his own tiny treasure chests and a variety of toy cars, trucks & tractors. He can (and does) design and construct anything he wants to make.
Born in California because his dad was stationed there in the US Navy, Monroe came to Texas just as fast as he could get here. He was 9 years old when his parents moved back to Denton County where they were born in late 1890s. His family had firm roots in the German-settled areas just north of Denton.
He attended Denton Schools and graduated from NTSU (now University of North Texas) with a Bachelor Degree in Industrial Technology. He settled into a career as a linotype operator at UNT until computer technology made linotypes obsolete. He switched to proofreader and retired from UNT in 1990 after 38 years with the Printing Services department.
He enjoyed farming, Polled Hereford cattle, landscaping, most any kind of music, and building things with his hands and mind. He was raised on farm life and the German influence of his heritage.
Construction of the gallery began in August of 1999, less than 2 weeks after his 69th birthday. Working alone most of the time, he leveled the land, laid the foundation, raised the walls (a neighbor helped) and installed electricity, lighting and air conditioning.
It was amazing how creative a man could get to accomplish a task when there was no one else around to help. Rest assured that he made many, many trips up and down that ladder! Hammers were everywhere so that one was always within reach. And while I was at work in Denton during the day, the "tap, tap, tap, tap" of the hammers echoed across the rolling pastureland of the neighboring farms. Monroe's Hereford cattle came to the fence and offered their "moos" of encouragement as they kept him company.
That carpenter-husband of mine was very methodical as he plodded along on his own. Jack, a neighbor, would come to visit & check on progress. Cousin Elmer would come by to chat, providing opportunity for fellowship and a break. Slowly the labor of love progressed, and I could hardly wait!
Walls went up; trusses were hoisted; decking was put into place and the roofer came. A building was built that offered so much more protection and warmth and comfort than God's Holy Family had in that little stable over two thousand years ago in the real Bethlehem, the Bethlehem of Judea where Joseph and Mary had gone to register and be counted.
When Spring came in Denton County in 2000, progress slowed as Monroe had farming and crops to tend. I was able to help more as evening daylight lengthened. I sanded and painted trim work and detailed an elaborate system of lighting. I installed carpet on the walls to add texture and to absorb sound. I was always on the lookout for shelving ideas and was soon looking at store displays with an entirely new perspective.
Finally by the end of October, shelves were ready and carts and boxes were brought in. It felt like Christmas and I was so excited! Yet there was much work to do. I wanted to be sure everything was accounted for, so as each Baby Jesus was unwrapped, it's number was checked off the spreadsheet. It was cleaned, and repaired if needed, and then placed on a shelf, on the Christmas tree, or in a shadowbox. Nights were long in November that year of 2000. Because I still had a day-job, the hours of darkness were all I had to get set up, and it took many of them! But by the end of November my first visitor arrived and signed the guest book. (Eighteen years later, in a second guest book nearly filled, guest # 2,000 would be signing before the end of the year.)
Because the nature of my collection was seasonal, display time was short in the earlier days of the collection when they could be shared with friends or family. I realized in the early 1980s that a Christmas tree decorated only with Nativity ornaments would be an excellent way to share them with my church family. Year after year…on Thanksgiving weekend, hundreds of nativity ornaments would lovingly be placed on the Christmas tree in the Fellowship Hall of Blue Mound United Methodist Church, my home church of 25 years at that time. Sometimes friends would help decorate (or un-decorate) the tree, enjoying the many stories and histories that accompanied the ornaments.
As the century ended, so did that tradition….1999 was the last Christmas the Manger Tree would be displayed at the church. The tree would finally have a year-round, permanent home at Bethlehem in Denton County when, by Christmas 2000 the gallery was ready. Each individual scene had been carefully unpacked and checked off the master list and thoughtfully placed in its new place of honor, clean and made whole again as needed, just as we are when needed.
As the shelves and cases began to fill, my daughter Miriam began to wonder if there would be room for all the nativities. No one knew for sure, but I just had faith. Almost every detail of planning had worked out perfectly. I felt reassurance that God had approved the project and was fitting all the pieces together. When shelves had been placed, without knowing how many of each depth would be needed where, only one had to be moved, and then moved up only one notch on the brackets.
My favorite place is a nook displaying much of the collection inherited from my mother when she died in 1998. It contains the Nativity she remembers having when she was a little girl back in 1927. Her father made the stable from an apple crate. There are quite a few nativities in the nook that were handcrafted by Mimi and by her husband Carl. He even grew the corn for the one Mimi made using the shucks for the folks and the corn silks for their hair. Also in Mimi's Nook, although not necessarily from her collection, is a display of various necklaces, bracelets, pins and charms. It is for these that the magnifying glass that belonged to my great-grandmother even before she married, proves to be quite useful. Ornaments were saved for last because their space was already reserved. There would be three Christmas trees, evergreen to represent eternal life. Later, two more would be added in the years to come.
MANGER TREE MAJESTY TREE TREE OF LIGHT
A large 7-ft. tree, the MANGER TREE, stands before the large window and displays approximately 800 Nativity ornaments depicting the Infant Christ Child. Ornaments included spoons, wooden thread spools, lace, glass, ceramic, plastic, wooden eggs, alabaster cutouts, icicle-shapes, & children's art banners; some lighted, some open, some musical; some large balls, & some tiny carvings; some bulky and gaudy, some delicate and dainty. There is even one with Santa kneeling at the manger, because even Santa knows that the Infant Child in the manger is God's Gift of Love to all of us.
Two smaller trees are themed by color. First is the MAJESTY TREE, is a 4-ft. tree, decorated only with gold and brass ornaments, covered with finely spun, golden angel hair shimmering in the lights, and topped with a golden crown to remind us that God sent His Son, the King of Kings, to rule in our hearts. The gold color represents the majesty of our Lord.
Second is the TREE OF LIGHT, is a 5-ft slender tree decorated with clear acrylic glass crystal and spun glass ornaments that reflect the clear bulbs that encircle the tree. This is to remind us that Jesus is the Light of the World, a beacon in a world of darkness, and that God's Light must reflect through us to others. The wisps of silvery angel hair, and white look of the clear lights represent the purity of our Lord.
Two large grapevine spirals hang on either side of a door. Each is wrapped with golden leaves and other greenery, and lighted with clear lights. One spiral is decorated with all white ornaments; the other with a series of ornaments called "And His Name Shall Be Called…" with each one bearing a banner with one of the names of Jesus.
And so the shelves and walls filled through the years as the nativities moved a little closer together to welcome another one alongside. People came to see them, to feel closer to God, to be amazed by how many could be so different, to come again to see ones they had missed, to bring other friends or family to see Baby Jesus. And the collection kept growing……
By 2011 the shelves were all full and the boxes and crates in storage were filling up again. With a small inheritance from my father, we decided to increase the gallery in memory of both my parents. This time an outside builder was contracted in March, 2012 to fulfill my very precise plans for two additional rooms and a bathroom that would become an essential asset! Monroe, at age 81 by then, supervised to be sure we got the same quality he had provided.
When finally completed at end of August, I began some re-arranging after deciding to group all of the crosses on one wall, all plates (almost) on one wall, all bells on one shelf, all eggs on another, all water globes on one table and all Native Americans on one reservation! I soon found out I needed to apply for another Land Grant for the Indians, but alas, there was no room. Even the bathroom was filled with nativities!
Monroe built it for me, a labor of love, to have a place where I could enjoy my collection of God's Gift of Love, Baby Jesus. Neither of us ever considered that by sharing it I would be blessed, that it would bring my greatest joy: To be able to perhaps plant a seed of God's love in someone who doesn't know Him…. to see children react to a nativity set of all dog figures, or cats, or mice…. to have a visitor from Argentina or anywhere tell me something I didn't know about one of my nativities….to tell my visitors how a material was treated to become a figure … to point out how artists around the world think outside the box to portray from their mind's eye Baby Jesus and His company of animals, angels, friends and family …. to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit in an ambiance of soft music and white Christmas lights and surrounded by Baby Jesus… it just doesn't get any better!!