Bellevue couple's 250 nativity sets a family affair

Phil and Diane Garding show a small fraction of their 250 nativity sets that they have collected from around the world. - Courtesy photo
Phil and Diane Garding show a small fraction of their 250 nativity sets that they have collected from around the world.
— image credit: Courtesy photo


By Sarah Gerdes

Special to the Bellevue Reporter

Diane and Phil Garding starting buying their first nativity set in 1990 after moving to Washington, but Diane recalls the bug really set it when she and Phil were in Russia, adopting the first of two children.

“It hit me that I wanted to have something to commemorate the event,” she explained, describing an intricately painted nativity. Over the years, the couple began adding a few sets at a time. When their older children grew, they, too, got into the act.

“When I had a few pieces of a holy family, I’d ask my kids to get me a giraffe or an elephant, or this piece or that to fill out a collection.”

It became a family affair, and now the Gardings have nearly 250 sets.

Most are artwork handmade from a wide variety of materials, including wood, clay, cloth, felt, banana fiber, cornhusks, steel, copper, brass bullet casings, stone, shell, newspaper, beeswax, salt dough, leather, rubber, glass, and more.

The nativities come from over 60 countries, but they have the most from Kenya because they have travelled to Kenya twice to run medical clinics with the Imani Project, a Portland non-profit organization.

“Each nativity set reminds me of a people or community we have visited,” Diane said. “I also wanted to teach my children that Christmas was about Christ. I like the folk art and seeing how other people portray their feelings about the birth of the Savior.”

A part of the joy of collecting nativity sets are sharing with others. The Gardings are generous with their collection, even when it involves a large number, such as for their loan to the Festival of the Nativities.

“When it came to a point where we could share them, it was then we realized we had a pretty amazing collection,” Diane recalled.

Initially, she worried about theft or damage, but not anymore.

“We have observed that visitors are reverent and respectful, often quietly looking and whispering to each other.”

Not all sets are from visits to foreign lands. Many have come from eBay. Diane has become something of an expert of locating hard-to-find sets, and has helped discover artists who the Garding’s have commissioned for unique nativities. Their collection long ago expanded from a detached room with a loft packed full of nativities and is now overflowing into the office.

When will they stop buying nativities? Phil thinks for a minute and responded, “When the world runs out of artists who love the Savior.”


Sarah Gerdes lives in Bellevue.














A nativity set from Zimbabwe is made from soda cans and wire














A nativity set from is made from Banana Fibers.

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