GUILFORD >> Over 50 countries are represented and over 1,300 arrangements tell the same story at the home of Shirley Squires.
Every year since 1994, Squires, 85, has collected nativity scene pieces that are put on display throughout her home and small garage next door that is called, "Shirley's Touch of Heaven." She welcomes visitors by reservation December through February, but she lives among the massive collection year round.
"I gave up my bed for Jesus," said Squires with a laugh.
For the past four years, holiday season or not, her entire upstairs has served as an exhibit of multiple nativity scenes. In fact, her full-sized bed holds the largest and most detailed scene of the bunch, the Fontanini Heirloom Nativity set. Beige sands spreads across the bed, to create the setting of the old Bethlehem market square along with figures of village people on the outskirts of Joseph and Mary who were headed to Egypt with baby Jesus.
Squires snow sleeps downstairs on a reclining chair or couch.
"I like doing this because it shows the true meaning of Christmas," she said. " But I do love the gifts, kid's faces and all of that."
About nine years ago, her son Tim installed and stained shelves inside "Shirley's Touch of Heaven." The shelves hold some of her 1,300 sets, and she tries to avoid putting out duplicates. Many of the pieces have been donated by local pastors, friends, family, businesses or strangers. Squires says that Experienced Goods often notifies her when a nativity scene arrives at the store.
Every September she begins to swap her furniture from upstairs with the remaining nativity scenes that are located in her basement. She also changes up the downstairs display each year, and this incorporating more mirrors.
"If you place the nativity scenes on top of the mirrors, they reflect and it just gives them a different look."
She estimates that she has collected sets from more than 50 countries and believes that around 250 people come to visit her collection each year. People can schedule a visit by calling Squires at 802-254-2696.
Some of the pieces are from Korea, Poland, Ireland, Thailand, Vietnam, Germany, New Mexico, Rwanda and Russia have found a home with Squires. Then there's sets from artists such as Berta Hummel, Alan Sargent and Stacy Morse. Sargent and Morse were both Brattleboro-based at one point.
Though Squires is intentional about avoiding duplicates, there is one unique item that is seen throughout her home. Her great grandchildren dressed up as the people from the nativity story, and one of Squires' daughters, Donna, took their photo and photoshopped them inside of Retreat Farm barn. This piece is seen on shirts and other pieces of fabric at Squires' home.
"It took hundreds of photos until she got this together, but it came out beautifully," said Squires.
She exemplified further dedication to this when she attended the Friends of Crèche Convention twice, which is a nonsectarian, nonpolitical, and nonprofit organization for those who collect, exhibit, study, create, or simply treasure Christmas Nativity scenes.
Squires may obviously delight in the nativity story, but she also has a heart for charity.
"I do a lot of volunteering at Holton home," she said. "For the last three years I have taken nativity scenes up there too."
In addition, Squires has volunteered with Hospice and the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont since about 1997.
"I got involved with the AIDS Project because my son died of AIDS back about 23 years ago. I've done their walk every year and I've raised over a quarter-of-a-million dollars for them plus about another $25,000."
Squires collects donations from hundreds of sponsors each year, but also takes donations during her nativity showing for the AIDS Project and Hospice.
"I try not to put the donation jar out if I think people can't give, cause I don't want anyone to feel like they can't enjoy it."
Though it takes two months of set-up time with the help of her family, Squires regrets nothing.
"My favorite part is when people are overjoyed and tell me what it did for their Christmas. That makes it all worthwhile for all the work that goes into it."