Is Bigger Better?

Joe picking up pieces from Bronner's Apr. 2016
Joe picking up life-size Nativity pieces from Bronner’s April 2016

Life-size Nativity collector Joe Tyria of Kalamazoo, Michigan, says, “Yes!” Joe began collecting pieces from Bronner’s life-size fiberglass Nativity in 2014 with encouragement from his late grandmother, Beverly Tyria, for whom the collection is named. (Check it out on Facebook!). We spoke with Joe about his love for Christmas, the Nativity, his grandmother, and the journey he embarked on in 2014 to collect and display a large-as-life Bronner’s Nativity.

Bronner’s: WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY THAT MAKES YOU LIKE IT SO MUCH

Joe: I’m Catholic, so for me, Christmas is the commemoration of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s always the most important part to me. Other than that, the entire season from Thanksgiving to Christmas seems to be the happiest time of the year, even in the midst of hard times. I found that particularly true during the 2015 Christmas season as my grandmother had passed away December 2.  Even with that and everything surrounding it, the spirit of the season kept me from going into despair. Also, being Catholic gives me the advantage of an extended Christmas celebration since liturgically, we celebrate starting on Christmas Day and then for twelve days after that, ending with Epiphany.  That’s where the 12 days of Christmas comes from, after all.  So in celebrating both the secular and liturgical seasons, I get nearly three months of Christmas.  How can you beat that?

Joe & Bronner's life-size Nativity Aug. 1986
Joe at Bronner’s August 1986

Bronner’s: WHEN DID YOU START VISITING BRONNER’S?

Joe: I recently found old photographs of my first visit to Bronner’s, and the date stamp on the back of those photos is August 1986. That would have made me 8 years old. I remember being impressed with how big the place was – and it’s even bigger now! – bronners.com One of the photos shows me posed in front of Bronner’s exclusive life-size Holy Family displayed at the south entrance. I’m posed facing toward the camera, but my head is turned, totally focused on the figures of Mary, Jesus, and Joseph. At the time, my grandfather was purchasing an illuminated blow-mold Nativity for me to display in the yard, and we were there to buy new figures for that. I actually still have that Nativity set, but as I am getting out of the blow-mold game, as it were, I am selling that and all of my outdoor illuminated holiday figures. I’m now focusing my entire display on the Bronner’s exclusive life-Size Nativity scene.

Bronner’s: OF ALL THE DECORATING OPTIONS FOR CHRISTMAS, HOW AND WHY DID YOU CHOOSE A LIFE-SIZE NATIVITY TO DISPLAY?

Joe: To answer that, I should give you a little background on how it all happened. As stated previously, I had displayed a blow-mold Nativity set in the yard since the mid 1980s. I was browsing eBay in February 2014 and found a blow-mold Baby Jesus with His arms extended outward. Usually a blow-mold Baby Jesus depicts His hands resting on His chest. I decided to get the Baby Jesus from eBay, modify it to illuminate, and then spray paint it to match the rest of my set. When it arrived, I noticed it was made of a thicker plastic than I was used to and that it likely would not light up like the other figures. My grandmother pointed out that it resembled Bronner’s life-size Baby Jesus. I then went to Bronner’s commercial website to use the stock photo as my reference and hand-painted the figure in Bronner’s current style. After seeing the finished product, I decided that maybe I should get the Mary, Joseph and hovering angel to display in the yard instead of the blow-mold set. Grandma encouraged the decision and I called Jan Kribs of Bronner’s commercial division to place my order. I also asked for a custom paint on the Joseph to invert the stock colors and she obliged. Went with a U-Haul to pick the items up in August 2014 and displayed it that year.

I purchased the shepherds and sheep in 2015, again asking for a custom paint on one of the shepherds, and again picking up the figures in a U-Haul. Then my Grandmother became ill and I devoted all my time outside of work and church to caring for her. She passed on December 2, 2015, of complications from intestinal cancer. But before going into her final sleep, she insisted that the Nativity be erected, even if she couldn’t be there to see it. And I obliged.

Beverly A. Tyria
Beverly A. Tyria
Beverly A. Tyria Memorial Nativity Scene Dec. 2015
Beverly A. Tyria Memorial Nativity Scene December 2015

Later that December, I was looking on Craigslist and found a vintage, nearly complete, Bronner’s life -size Nativity for sale at a very low price. This particular design is no longer manufactured by Bronner’s since the molds for them perished in a fire back in the 1960s, I believe. I only wanted the three Magi on camel-back, but the guy refused to break up the set. So I purchased the entire set and rented yet another U-Haul to pick the figures up, donating the surplus figures to my parish, Saint Mary’s Catholic Church in Kalamazoo.

That tells you the how; now for the why.

Even as a young child, I was devoted to the Nativity. More and more we’re finding Nativity scenes pushed out of the public square and relegated either to church lawns or kept in storage. So the decision to go life-sized was to remind everyone who drives past my house what the season is all about.

Why did I choose Bronner’s set? Because Bronson Park in Kalamazoo used to display the set. Actually, it was an amalgamation of the current figures and the vintage figures that are no longer made. It was always a highlight of the Christmas season to go to Bronson Park and walk through the life-size Nativity.  The City of Kalamazoo auctioned it off to a private buyer in 1999, and they live so far off the main road that you have to go onto their property to see it. That Nativity holds fond memories for generations of people in the Kalamazoo area, so the other reason I decided to go life-sized is to bring back those memories to my community.

The Nativity is also a yearly memorial to my late grandmother. I named my Nativity the Beverly A. Tyria Memorial Nativity Scene because with everything that had been going on with Grandma’s illness, I probably wouldn’t have displayed it in 2015 had she not insisted I do so.

camels vintage refurbished
Camels from Bronner’s vintage life-size Nativity refurbished by Bronner’s May 2016 for Joe

Bronner’s:  WHERE/HOW DID YOU DEVELOP THE SKILLS TO DO SOME OF THE FIGURE REFURBISHING AND STABLE CONSTRUCTION YOURSELF?

Joe:  When I was in middle school in the early 1990s, my best friend Bill and I took some Saturday classes at a local ceramics shop – my grandmother’s idea, mainly to keep us out of mischief. That is where I learned most of the painting techniques I use, but I have honed my skills on the many projects I’ve completed throughout the years for family, friends and my church. I do know my limitations, though.  I brought my three standing camels to Bronner’s this year for them to do some fiberglass work and repaint them. They do a better job on the animal figures than I can do. I will be repainting the three Magi myself, though. I’m also repainting the figures I donated to my church.  So it will be a busy summer!

magi vintage Joe refurbishing
Joe repainting a vintage Bronner’s Magi

Regarding the stable, the priest from my parish, Fr. James Richardson, will be assisting me in building the new stable. He’s the one with the carpentry skills; I’m the one with the rough design in mind, which will basically create a very wide pergola with a back wall. I’ll share pictures with you once we have it completed.

I originally bought the stable that Bronner’s offers, but have found that the floor space is very limited and can really only allow you to display the Holy Family in two basic configurations. I like to change up the display from year to year, so that’s the main reason for the new stable. I will be donating the Bronner’s stable to my church to go with their life-size figures. The new stable will be made from mostly reclaimed wood from pallets and tractor crates to give it a nice rustic look.  The bonus in using this kind of wood is that it’s already weather-treated. The new stable will have a larger footprint that will allow me the variety I seek in displaying the figures and will be totally collapsible for storage off-season.

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