It started when Michael Whalen bought his first Nativity scene when he was 6 years old. Now his collection has snowballed to more than 400 different Nativity scenes, most of which can be seen by the public noon-7 p.m. Dec. 26-28 at in downtown New Baltimore.
"We do it for two reasons," says the Clinton Township resident and retired mortgage representative. "One is for the beauty of it all, the faith and the art."
"The other is for the food pantry," said Whalen. All donations from people who visit go to "In this economy, they've been hit a lot. Their requests have gone up dramatically."
Whalen, his wife, Theresa, his daughter, Jenny, and other volunteers spend more than three days unpacking and setting up the displays, all for charity.
"This helps people keep going when things get bad," he said.
The Christmas Collection
Whalen really started putting effort into his collection when he was around 30 years old. Since then, he has amassed not only a collection of art, but also a network of friends who collect pieces for him and several trips of his own throughout the world.
"Australia is the farthest I've gone and gotten a piece," said Whalen. "I've been to Morocco but I would love to get out there into Africa."
Last month he attended a global convention of Nativity scene collectors in Toronto, where he met new people and traded pieces. Through these groups he even met Wally Bronner, founder of the famous Bronner's Christmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth, MI.
"It's grown on me," says Whalen's daughter, Jenny. "It's the different cultures that I get to see and how one subject can be seen differently from country to country, and even state to state."
Nine years ago the Whalens showed off their collection in their own home, but it wasn't until a collector friend gave Michael the idea to host the display somewhere else that he started setting up events like this one. This year will be the fourth year for him at St. Mary's.
"We make sure people think it's not solely about the religious aspect, but also about the cultures, what people see around the world."
Many Places, Many Materials
Whalen has sets from all over the globe, in all shapes, sizes, prices and materials imaginable.
A scene from the Czech Republic has more than 30 pieces of decorated paper on wooden cutouts, while one from Russia that Whalen keeps at home is as small a golf ball and requires a magnifying glass to see all the detail.
"It really hit me when I saw how different they could be," said Whalen of when he first realized he wanted to collect them.
One set is made of finger puppets. New this year is a set from South Africa made from recycled Coca-Cola cans, which is on display next to ones made out of newspapers and even compacted coal dust. One from Germany is made out of chocolate, while another from Africa is made from solidified mud and dung.
One of the most popular ones for Metro Detroiters is a set made from recycled car parts sent from Peru.
Wax, glass, wool and many other materials have been made into the Christmas art, and it's come from everywhere on Earth.
Whalen can't really say which piece is the most expensive. Some are one-of-a-kind, and some were made from companies that no longer exist or artists who have passed away.
Whalen can say, however, is that his favorite one is a Native American-themed Nativity from Colorado, where the wise men bring gifts of corn and hides. He says it shows how unique to an area a scene can get, and he also got the set the year his daughter was born.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Jenny Whalen is the editor of Macomb Patch.