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'It's Not Exactly Bethlehem' | Winter 2007 Out Here Magazine

Mary Alice Merryman created her own mother/baby nativity set by collecting figurines over the course of five years.

Special nativity features farm babies and their mothers

By Hannah Wolfson
Photography by Jeff Gentner

Mary Alice Merryman's most recently completed nativity set doesn't have any camels or wise men.

Instead, the manger scene consists of 16 farm animals, all mothers and their young, surrounding Mary and the baby Jesus. There's a cat with kitten, ewe with lamb, hen with chick, horse with foal, and more.

Collecting all the pieces has been a labor of love for Merryman, who considers nativity sets one of her hobbies. She got the idea when she saw a model cow and calf in a store.

"I know it's not exactly Bethlehem, but I thought it would be cute to have the mothers and the babies," says Merryman, of Summersville, W. Va. "I got to thinking there must be a universal connection between all mothers."

The pieces are made by Schleich, a German company. She started out buying wild animal figurines for her grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, and soon got hooked herself.

"I don't like things that plug in or need batteries and most of the gifts my family members give each other are handmade, but this is something that I know is timeless and durable and realistic," she says.

It took Merryman five years to find all the pieces she wanted, usually buying pieces when she visited family around the country.

"My town had just opened a brand new Tractor Supply store, and I had been looking for a ewe for many years," she says. "I say, 'I found ewe' because that was the piece I needed to complete my collection."

Collecting isn't new to Merryman; she has about 40 nativity sets. She's carrying on a tradition started by her mother, whose boxes of holiday decorations filled several rooms when they were pulled from the attic.

Nowadays, Merryman herself takes days to unpack all her sets and empty her bookshelves and china cupboards each winter to make room for the manger scenes. They include some made by her husband, who crafts baskets as a side business, and one that was her grandmother's. Her favorite may be one she made for her mother as a child and has now inherited.

But it's the farm set that has inspired her to write a story about motherhood. Merryman, who works as a custodian for her church, has written a column for a local newspaper and also has several unpublished children's books under her belt.

It also reminds her of the two years she and her family spent living on a farm, some of it without electricity and plumbing after a major flood.

"We had the cattle and the ducks and the goats and that was two of the best years of my children's life, I'm sure," she says.

Merryman may eventually hand over the nativity scene to her grandchildren, now in their teens. And she may not be done yet.

"I've been thinking about adding some more animals," she says. "My husband said, 'You don't have a dog.' I guess I just never thought of a dog in the manger."

Hannah Wolfson lives and writes in Birmingham, AL.