Her passion is to share (and bring joy)

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GUILFORD — In this corner of Vermont, Shirley Squires' name is synonymous with Christmas and sharing.

She's not known for Santa Claus and his reindeer, or for presents under a Christmas tree, but rather for her collection of Christmas nativity scenes or creches, which depict the birth of Jesus Christ.

Squires, 88, has been inviting friends and strangers alike into her home for more than 20 years, sharing her extensive collection of the tender Christmas scenes of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, along with shepherds and their flocks, and the three wise men and their camels.

The last time she counted, she had 1,400 nativities.

But on Thursday, as she got ready to open her collection, which she calls Shirley's Touch of Heaven, she said that number is now likely above 1,600. She has been given or purchased an additional 200 in recent years.

Squires' story and her personal journey of sharing and giving to the community is so well known that people call her up and donate their family's heirloom nativities to her.

People in the towns of Guilford and Brattleboro bring her back nativities from foreign countries where they go on vacation; she has nativities from 56 different countries and made of a long list of materials.

There are the purely traditional religious creches, from Germany and Italy. There are several 29-cent-per figure sets from Woolworth's from the 1940s and '50s, when many children and Vermont families built their own nativities, piece by piece. There is a tiny creche made of tiny Legos, assembled by one of Squires' great-grandsons. There are nativities made of golden Vermont beeswax, and another made with spun and carded Vermont wool from gray, black and brown Vermont sheep.

There are plenty of whimsical creches that border on the adorable: she has dog families, cat families, mice and moose families, wild animals, teddy bears and snowmen all depicting the sacred scene.

There is even a Peanuts cartoon (Lucy as Mary and Charlie Brown as Joseph) nativity.

There are nativities from Korea, Poland, Peru, Nigeria, Bolivia, Jerusalem, Canada, Haiti, India, Israel, Ireland, Austria, Kenya, Rwanda, Philippines, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Tanzania, Alaska, Vietnam, Mexico, Panama, Russia, Holland, Hungary, Puerto Rico, Hong Kong, Chile, Taiwan, Italy and others, as well as from many states. There is one made out of the rock-like ash from Mount St. Helens in Washington state, she said.

There is a simple nativity made by the students at St. Michael's Catholic School in Brattleboro out of paper and colored with crayons. The school regularly visits the collection.

Squires, an active member of St. Michael's Catholic Church in Brattleboro, said her collecting isn't strictly a result of her religion, but the nativities have always spoken to her.

"I just always liked them," she said.

She likes the modern changes, including an obviously pregnant Mary and Joseph holding the baby Jesus.

There are creches made of paper, wood, stone, stained glass, plastic, ceramic, rubber, beeswax, Legos, nails, pipe cleaners, tin, silver spoons, polymer, wool or cotton and knit or crocheted or quilted. Others are made from simple blocks of wood, wood shavings or corn husks. There is one with a stable made out of a sandwich bun that she bought at a convention for nativity collectors.

For every nativity she bought, there are dozens from yard sales or thrift stores, or just plain gifts. She's bought a few nativity sets on eBay, the online auction site, but said she never spent more than $10 per set. "I knew my limit," she said.

She said she focused on collecting them from all different corners.

"I always liked them," said Squires, who said at one time she collected Beanie Babies and spoons.

"But this had more meaning," she said.

Her favorites? Without hesitation she says: "The ones my kids and grand kids give me."

She gave her very first nativity to a daughter. Her largest, most elaborate creche scene, 200 pieces by the Italian maker Fontanini, is promised to a son and his family.

Her family is front and center at her personal nativity museum. She started collecting and displaying around the time her husband Maynard died, as well as her son, former state Rep. Ron Squires, who died of AIDS 26 years ago. She and Maynard had six children and raised two other boys "as our own."

She also endured the death of her 21-year-old grandson Kevin and his girlfriend Kelsey 11 years ago, when their car was struck by a driver high on drugs.

But the grandmother of 20 and great-grandmother of 24 is equally passionate about raising money for AIDS awareness. She has considered not opening the collection for the past couple of years. But during the fall, the idea of getting all the nativities out of their boxes and back on display takes over, and 2018 will be no different. About half of Squires' amazing collection is housed in a dedicated room in her two-car garage.

Her son Tim made the special room for her, and built the many shelves that hold her ever-expanding collection.

She doesn't put those sets away every year, but simply puts out dryer sheets and cotton balls soaked in oil of peppermint to discourage unwanted four-footed visitors. Keeping the strings and strings of white lights alive is another constant challenge, since many of the lights run on batteries.

Her house is another story, where she, her daughters and friends redecorate the ground floor every year with hundreds of nativities, arranging them to maximum effect, adding and improving to the display and adding the new ones.

Squires' house and the annex, Shirley's Touch of Heaven, are open to visitors through the months of December and January, by appointment only. Call Squires at 802-254-2696. She accepts donations for the Brattleboro AIDS Project or Brattleboro Hospice.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or 802 254-2311, ext. 154.


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