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'Crazy about Nativity scenes'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A glance around the first floor of Pat and Joe Norohna's home leaves no doubt about what Christmas means to them. Nativity sets in a tremendous variety of styles and sizes cover every surface.

The Norohnas are natives of India and grew up in a section of the country heavily populated by Catholics. There, the Christmas Eve custom is to attend an outdoor midnight Mass, then return home where families reverently place the baby Jesus in Nativity scenes that sit in front of most homes.

"I'm crazy about Nativity scenes. Where I grew up, in Mangalore, Christmas isn't about presents. Nativity scenes are so special there," she said.

Her brothers built a stone grotto to house their family's Nativity scene. Each year, they throw sprouted lentils on the ground to resemble grass and place the sheep figurines on them to "graze."

Most Indian Catholics also display a star of Bethlehem on their homes. Pat's brothers fashioned her family's star each year from bamboo. "Now they are all made in China. It's so sad. Nobody has time to make them anymore," she said.

Pat and Joe married in 1979 and were living in Florida when she began collecting the Nativity sets that reminded her so much of home. Today she has about 120 Nativity sets from countries all over the world. They're made from wood, clay, stained glass, resin, mud, porcelain, crystal, pewter and even cornhusks.

They sit inside pinecones, seashells, an apple, a cross, a Christmas tree and a matchbox, as well as in glass and crystal cases and traditional wooden stables and sit in four first-floor rooms of their house. "It's hard to find places to put them so they don't look crowded."

A twinkling Christmas tree includes about 15 Nativity ornaments including one carved in olive wood from the Holy Land. The brightly decorated tree contrasts with the simpler tradition in her hometown in which people cut a single branch of pine and hang homemade ornaments on it.

Pat seeks the sets whenever she travels and names Italy, India, Mexico and the Bahamas among the countries represented. Sets from Assisi, Alaska, Chile, Brazil and "good old West Virginia" reside on the top of a piano. "We love West Virginia, so of course I wanted some from here," she said.

Friends, family and neighbors gave her others. She treasures sets given by the students she daily tutors in math, even if the sets she displays in the dining room where they work on lessons sometimes prove distracting.

"The students want to look closely at them. I tell them we'll set aside a few minutes at the end of the session to look at them," she said. "The ones given by students are so special. I think of them when I put them out each year."

A coffee table in the living room holds others with sentimental meaning, all given to Pat by Joe, her three children or close family members. One is a set beautifully wrought in pewter that Joe found on a trip to Malaysia and purchased as a surprise for Pat.

She's hard-pressed to list her favorites, but a white ceramic set that takes center stage nestled in a bed of fresh pine in the family room fireplace does hold the No. 1 spot in her heart.

Pat and her then-young son, Adi, and daughter, Maya, made the set at a ceramics class in 1988 when Pat was expecting their sister, Tina. "I took them to a ceramics class to keep them occupied. Maya was painstaking in her painting, and Adi was patient too," she said. She includes two painted sheep made from mud dug from a riverbank in India in the family-made display because, "I wanted something from India in here too."

Point out any set, and she will tell you its origins and who gave it to her, if it was a gift. The collection makes an impression on visitors, including the 8-year-old Indian niece of a friend who came to visit the Norohnas. When her friend returned from a visit with the girl's family in India, she brought a Nativity set the little girl had sent with her for Pat to add to the collection. "I was so touched," she said.

She calls the polished piece of gnarled coffee tree branches in a corner of her kitchen the "Nativity tree" because it holds eight sets, including a cornhusk set from Assisi, a scene in a coconut shell from Hawaii, two in gourds from Brazil and another in a seashell from the Bahamas.

"When we go someplace, my eye just goes toward the Nativity scenes for sale," she said.

She displays a few special scenes year-round, including a one-piece porcelain scene that Joe purchased at an arts and crafts fair. It sits with other delicate pieces on a glass shelf in the dining room. A simple wooden set from her sister sits year-round on a shelf beside her kitchen sink.

Nostalgic memories of Christmases in India always cause a pang of homesickness, but it's softened through the years. The words of holiday songs like "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "There's No Place Like Home For The Holidays" used to be particularly painful.

The Nativities remind Pat of other traditions that shaped her childhood Christmases. Her mother made dozens of pound cakes and sweet treats her family took when they made the rounds visiting relatives. She bakes the cakes from the same recipe and tints portions of the dough green and pink, just like her mother did.

"I always think of my mom and all the cooking she did for Christmas," Pat said. "We six kids had to visit all the elderly relatives and bring them treats. Now that I'm a mom, I really appreciate the tradition."

Today her daughters continue the tradition of preparing and sharing holiday treats with friends and acquaintances in Texas and Indiana, where they reside.

When they lived at home, her children helped her bring out and repack the sets in their original packages every year. Without their help, she and Joe pull out the boxes and place the sets at a more leisurely pace. She can't imagine Christmas without them.

"I love the Nativities so much. The manger reminds me of the Christmas story. For me, that's what Christmas is all about," she said.

Reach Julie Robinson at julier@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.


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