By Margie Wuebker
NEW KNOXVILLE -- The true meaning of the Christmas season can be found throughout Betty Henschen's country home.
Nativity scenes in all shapes and sizes fill the curio cabinet in the living room as well as the wood hutch in the dining room. The breezeway is home to a large lighted display featuring Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus and a host of visitors ranging from Magi to sheep gathered around a rustic stable.
Arranged tastefully throughout the state Route 219 residence are more offerings -- some homemade, many gifts from relatives and friends; others created by artisans throughout the world.
"I leave some out all year long to remind me of God's greatest gift to mankind," the retired Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. secretary says. "The rest are carefully stored away until my grandson helps carry them all downstairs. People often ask how many I own. The truth is I don't really know because I've never taken the time to count."
She acquired the first piece in 1954, following her marriage to Hosea Henschen. Joseph and Mary, portrayed as cherubs in brightly colored outfits, share a kiss while standing beside an infant in a cradle. This, too, is an early addition commemorating the December 1955 birth of the Henschens' first child, Brent. Visitors often comment about the unusual nativity set made of layers of carefully applied papier mache.
"Dora Tangeman, the mother of my friend (New Bremen resident Dorothy Dicke) taught us how to make these," Henschen says. "Dora is gone now but I think of her every year at this time."
Hummel figures also convey the holiday story, souvenirs of a 25th wedding anniversary trip to Germany. A hand-carved wooden angel appears to look down from above, a memento from the Bavarian city of Oberammergau. A tiny egg atop a pedestal stands no more than two inches but contains the entire stable setting.
Plastic dime store figures stand with hand-blown characters, gifts from former Sunday School students Bruce Elsass and Randy Habercamp. There are tall statues from a Crystal Cathedral gift shop and a squat Mary and Joseph along with the Christ Child from Mexico.
Eskimos are depicted in a unique Alaskan grouping fashioned of stone. Jesus rests not in a manger but on an Indian papoose board. Instead of shepherds with sheep, there are men with sled dogs.
A clay offering, this one a gift from her daughter-in-law and granddaughter, hails from Guatamala. Purchased during a mission trip, the detailed faces of humans and animals alike, are truly amazing given the fact none even measure much more than an inch in stature.
There are music boxes that play "Silent Night," including a Faberge-like egg that opens to reveal the Holy Family slowly rotating as the melody fills the room.
Each year Henschen spends a week working at Church World Services in New Windsor, Md. Some volunteers prepare clothing, medication and blankets for shipment to the poor. She is among those who help with the handiwork of Third World artisans sold at churches, boutiques and other outlets.
"I always buy something to bring home related to nativities," she says. "It is truly amazing the wonderful craftsmanship that comes from places like Bangladesh, India and Kenya. The artisans are paid upfront for the work and that helps their standard of living."
Other additions have come as a result of volunteer service in the gift shop at Joint Township District Memorial Hospital in St. Marys. She laughinly calls herself the shop's very best customer.
While some people might be tempted to say she never saw a Nativity set she didn't like, the New Knoxville-area woman quickly sets the record straight. She once saw the familiar Christmas scene recreated in Coca Cola cans and considered it sacrilegious.
Henschen, who serves as superintendent of the junior Sunday School department at First United Church of Christ in New Knoxville, also incorporates her love of the nativity into Christmas plays she has written annually for the last 25 years. This year's version is set at a Bethlehem, Pa., hospital and will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 18 at the church.
"I began writing them to make sure each child had a part," she says. "Somehow a new idea comes along every year."