Most everyone collects something, whether it is pigs or elephants, pieces of glass or handmade blankets. During this time of year Santa collections come out of the closets to be shared with friends.
Once a year Ron Paddack and his wife, Hwa Yun, take the artwork off the bookcase shelves in their Edmond home, bring in extra bookcases and carefully place each one of the 89 nativity scenes Ron has collected for the past 36 years.
“We begin setting up the nativity sets the day after Thanksgiving,” Ron said, “and start taking them down the day after New Year’s Day.”
The nativity sets are from the whimsical to the ornate, and the purchase price varies from 88 cents to $180 for each set. And each nativity comes with its own story. The one thing that all but two of the nativity sets have in common is that all of the 89 nativities come from one of the 183 countries Ron has visited in the past 36 years.
While working for the University of Central Oklahoma, Ron said he had the opportunity to travel while recruiting international students to attend UCO.
“I was hired by Bill Lillard as the founder of the International office and stayed in that position for 30 years retiring July 1, 2006,” Ron said. “I began with a staff of one, me, and retired with a staff of 15 people working with me.”
“One from Georgia was given as a present, and of course, I had to purchase one made of red clay from Oklahoma,” Ron said of his nativity scene collection.
Ron came about collecting because his sister collected pigs and it seemed to him everyone collected something.
“In the early days of my life I came to the realization that everyone had something they collected, and one day I saw a nativity and thought it would be interesting to collect them.”
Ron said one of his favorite nativities is from Egypt and most people looking at it may not see the beauty of the delicate figurines made of clay, but for Ron it is the story behind it that makes it one of his favorites.
“I was going to Cairo to recruit students and UCO’s Dean of Education Dale Mullins told me at that time Cairo was a very dangerous place, and I shouldn’t go anywhere alone,” Ron said.
He contacted one of the pastors at the First Baptist Church in Oklahoma City who had come from Egypt and in talking with him the pastor echoed what Mullins had said.
“The pastor had three sisters who had college-aged children and one of them traveled with me the entire time I was in Egypt,” Ron said. “I told his sisters I collected nativities, and in a Muslim country I knew it was not going to be easy to find one.”
One of the pastor’s sisters brought him a nativity that had been in her family and she had remembered playing with it as a child.
“I told her I couldn’t accept such a gift but she insisted,” he said. “I have no idea how old it is, but I know it is very old and it is very fragile. When I received it some of the pieces were broken, but my wife glued them back together.”
When the daughter of the pastor who had helped him married, her fiancé’s mother came for the wedding. When she saw the nativity set in the Paddock’s home she said, “I am glad to know it is part of a collection. I knew it (giving the nativity to Paddack) was the right thing to do.”
The least he remembers paying for a nativity set was 88 cents in Peru and he bought three sets, giving two away as gifts.
“I watched the Inca women make the nativity figurines out of clay,” Ron said. “They are very delicate.”
Nativity sets have been purchased in the Federated States of Micronesia, Greece, Andorra, Barbados, Antigua, St. Lucia, Malawi and Belgium among others.
“Many times the shop keepers would say, ‘Come back in November,’” Ron said. He would urge the store owner to look in the back storeroom and more than once the owner would return with a nativity set in hand.
“Sometimes I know they would take figurines from other sets to make a nativity,” Ron said.
Before purchasing one nativity Ron was asked to share the story of the birth of Christ with a Muslim merchant.
As a protest against Vatican policies, the Belgium nativity depicts one of the wise men as a woman. The Bolivian nativity has the wise men riding llamas instead of camels and the most expensive set purchased in Iceland has only three pieces in it and both Mary and Joseph have gray hair.
“I think the woman who made the nativity used a man and woman she already had on hand and quickly made the Christ child,” Ron said.
When in Morocco the store keeper agreed to sell Ron a nativity but only if he promised to display Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus on a Muslim prayer rug. Ron agreed and each year the three-piece nativity sits on the prayer rug nestled among the other nativities on the shelves.
The three-piece set from Trinidad and Tobago is composed of figurines shaped like small eggs, the largest no bigger than an inch and Mary is wearing a red bow in her hair.
The nativity from Spain fits into a small, round gourd and a geode is the manger for a glass nativity from Brazil, while an abalone shell from Jordan holds a mother of pearl nativity. The Canadian nativity is composed of characters looking much like the American Indians.
The largest nativity is made of solid wood with the story of the birth of Christ carved into the statues of Mary and Joseph and is from the Isle of Man.
The Indonesian nativity is made of bamboo, while others are made of glass, pewter, wood, clay, plaster of Paris, cloth, cardboard, bamboo, mother of pearl, grasses and corn husks.
Ron has been journaling since he was 16 years of age and now at 74 years young he is still journaling. The first book he authored is titled “Toilet Paper and Ice Cubes” and covers the years of his life and his travels from 1938-76.
“I started evaluating a country by the availability and quality of the toilet paper as well as by the availability of ice,” Ron said. He has plans for a second book.
Ron is not putting in as many frequent flyer miles as he once did, but he is still traveling, and is still purchasing nativity sets.
His most recent nativity, and one of the larger sets he purchased, was one he brought back from Aruba after attending a wedding for a former student from England.
Many of his nativities are crudely made, but each is a work of art, and each has a story behind it that Ron Paddack and his wife are ready to share with those who are willing to listen.
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