For Carol Olthoff, the Christmas season is a treasure. Or about 800 treasures.
Olthoff displays her collection of over 800 different Nativity scenes every Christmas at the Columbus Center for the public to enjoy.
"I believe this is my gift, my inspiration, for the season that I can give to the community and that's why I invite the community to come," Olthoff said.
The public can view Olthoff's collection and visit with her about the pieces throughout the season. However, the free display is not just about showing Olthoff's collection to visitors.
"I want them surrounded with the Christmas spirit and not feel troubled or hurried," she said. "They can take as long as they want, they can come through in a few minutes, or they can stay an hour. It's just a pleasant place to be."
That place to be took Olthoff and two friends over two weeks to set up.
From the Christmas lighting around the ceiling to the location of each individual Nativity, it's a process.
"You want to use anything that will give you dimension," Olthoff said. "Heights are so important."
Olthoff scavenges for pieces to arrange her collection on such as shoeboxes, reels of wire, and piano benches. She often covers the pieces with cloth or scarves and even created a display from sheets.
According to Olthoff, around 200 of the Nativity scenes were donated to her by friends, family, and even strangers.
Just last Sunday she arrived at the Columbus Center and discovered a box with a self-storing Nativity scene inside. The person who left the gift remains a mystery.
There are other mysteries as well. Olthoff once hollowed a gourd and placed a Nativity scene inside. She then went upstairs to her bedroom and found a small star on her dresser. She doesn't know where the star came from.
"It works perfectly on the gourd though," she said.
The Nativity scenes are worldly experiences. The collection includes depictions from Iran, Germany, Japan, Mexico, and Guatemala among others.
There are Nativity scenes on ornaments, postage stamps, and canvasses. Some of Olthoff's pieces have been carved out of wood and made from rice and bread.
Guests often help her determine how old a scene might be.
"The guests that come in say, 'I had that' and so that is what's fun and interesting," she said.
Olthoff believes a cardboard Nativity scene is her oldest based from a visitor who remembered it. The estimated date is 1932.
Although Olthoff began collecting 53 years ago, she's only displayed her Nativity scenes at the Columbus Center for eight Christmas seasons.
About five years ago, over 1,100 people visited her collection. She's hoping to beat that record this year.
Once Upon a Nativity is open every day except Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Columbus Center located at 1601 2nd Avenue North
The exhibit will be closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and the final day is January 8th.
For more information, please call Carol Olthoff at (406)799-8109.