Toni and Bob Conway bought their first nativity scene when they were married 54 years ago. The 1997 death of her mother fueled a passion to collect more sets and now her amazing collection of 720 nativity scenes - depicting the birth of the Christ child - is available for viewing during a four-day open house at their rural home in front of Valley Harvest Nut, the family farm.
After Frances Skittone was diagnosed in 1996 with ovarian cancer that went into remission for a short time, Toni relented into her suggestions to share the collection with the public, a tradition that has repeated itself every other year.
"She always said, ‘Toni, you need to show these,' and I'd say, ‘Ah, I'm too busy,' " said Toni. "When we knew that her time was short in 1996 I did an open house in her honor and she was my first hostess and then we lost her the next April. So that's how we started open houses and we've been doing them every other year."
Since her mother's passing, the burgeoning collection has expanded manger-folds. Family members, including the couple's children Rob, Mark and Janine, and Toni's sisters, are always looking for unique nativity scenes during their travels. This year, for example, her sister Pennie Rorex picked up a colorful nativity scene in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, carved from a substance made of hardened mixture of mashed potatoes and gypsum.
"We're always looking but they have to be very different and unique to add them to the collection," said 4-foot-8 Toni.
The sets are of every imaginable style and art form and range from a one-inch high piece that cost a dime at Scotty's Castle in Death Valley to a Hummel set made in Germany that cost over $1,000. A Limoges Nativity from France was also pricy but she noted nativity sets "don't have to be expensive to be beautiful."
She catalogues the history of each nativity set, which include with characters as American Indians, mice, cats, chickens, dogs, teddy bears and cowboys. She has an Italian theme scene made of terra cotta. One made of aluminum cans, another of glass bottles. A 1992 stained glass nativity scene made by the late Jan Lehmann, founder of Modesto's Fisherman's Galley, is in a bedroom window. Other pieces were bought on line, local gift shops and nurseries. Many were handcrafted by Christian missions, such as the Global Mamas in African.
"It's amazing," said visitor Crystal Souza who lives in Turlock and attends church in Hughson. "I want to bring my family back. It's wonderful. I like the global feel. She has stuff from all over. I think a person could come a second or third time and see manger scenes that they missed."
Toni admits that it takes a lot of faith to let strangers into her home but she said "it works well."
Setting up the display disturbs life in the Conway household from the beginning of November to Jan. 1. She had help in the form of four girls helping on and off for a month. Even Bob has buy-in with a western themed room bearing a number of nativity sets including one with cowboys.
"They're displayed throughout the house," she said. "We have a separate nativity room with a beautiful display in there and this year we expanded to include the garage because I keep growing the collection."
When asked if her collection was an addiction Toni replied: "Well, I love the Lord and I love Christmas and we want to continue to share the true meaning of Christmas and it all comes together."
During her open houses, Toni walks around explaining to visitors where she acquired the pieces on display. Her favorite is in the garage: carved of pine with photos of family members as they appeared 20 years ago decapaged on the surface.
She didn't really know what to think of a nativity created by the Hopi Indians.
"It was a little different but when I realized that they took their culture and applied the birth of Jesus to it, who normally they would not worship, I thought it was very, very significant. A lot of people will say that they just want to make money off it - and that is true - but there isn't anyone who can't form something like this and not have a thought of ‘what is this? ‘why was this?'"
When does the collecting stop? Toni said when her health changes or if an organization promises to take it off her hands for public display it.
"I don't think my kids want to display 720 nativity sets in their houses," said Conway.
Christmas remains her favorite time of year for it brings together family.
"Family is very important to me. My little Italian grandfather used to compare the family to sticks. You put the sticks together and they might poke each other and stick each other but you keep those sticks together and you can't break them. You take one stick out, it breaks very easily. I've always used that theme for our family."
The collection last showed two years ago and is on display at the Conway residence, 3242 S. Carpenter Road west of Ceres, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 11-12 and 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 13.