Celebrating Betsy Christenson
Updated: Apr 13
When I first met Betsy Christenson I thought she was a one of a kind collector. However, since editing this page and writing blogs, I have found many, many more. She was not one of a kind, but she was perhaps one in a million.
Before I dive into my experiences with Betsy, I want you to know I plan to interview her daughter (also a collector) and get the story I never heard. So, this is likely part 1 of a 2 part blog.
My first meeting with Betsy was sometime around 2002. It's hard to remember, as the seasons get a bit fuzzy after all these years of collecting and displaying. (I am NOT getting older). If my memory is correct, we met in Ann Arbor, Michigan at the church she loved.
After having one of her friends track her down, we spent some time getting to know each other, with mostly me listening to Betsy tell her stories about how she came by so many sets. Betsy loved to talk about nativities! She had 900+ on display that year and when I said, "900!", she explained that there were at least 200 more sets under the tables she couldn't get out for lack of room.
The central room of the church was filled with people strolling around looking at all the sets. That explained the many busses in the parking lot. A self guided tour enhanced with little cards told where the nativities were made.
Betsy walked with me back to the classrooms and showed me two of her most prized nativities. One grouping was comprised of 10" Italian Precepie pieces which were collected by an Uncle (?) or someone special in the family. They were either early 20th Century or late 19th Century....either date wouldn't be nearly as impressive as these magnificent pieces. (sorry, I didn't get a picture).
I drooled a bit and remembered... "Thou shalt not covent." and allowed her to take me to her overwhelming Santon Collection. The room was filled with perhaps 1,000 pieces (I wouldn't be suprised if I discovered there were far fewer). At the front of the room was a large set...magnificently displayed. Betsy described the tradition of the Santon, and I listened intently as she told me about the beggar getting a front row seat to the event of Jesus' birth. But at the other end of the line of visitors was a character holding a lamp. This light bearer was showing the way and inviting any peoples stirred by God to come and see... an oft repeated story of the church during Christmastide.
Well, I thought to myself, these Santons she had amassed had to be one of the most impressive collections in the United States. I discovered after my encounter with that collection that I was not alone in thinking such things. (sorry once more - no pictures)
Betsy and I did not reconnect until 2005 when Friends of the Creche visited Santa Fe for the first time. We spoke welcoming words and gawked at the stunning members museum collection Susan Topp Weber had assembled at that convention. As we wandered through the rooms, studying Father Roten's collection and many other mind-blowing sets from every conceivable location and description, I wandered over to the table where the silent auction items were displayed. I found the set featured below. It was donated by the great one - Eileen Conty. I wrote down a bid, then wandered a bit. When I circled back I discovered Betsy had recorded a higher bid! Considering carefully our new friendship - in the name of Jesus - I outbid her of course. Once more I walked around, and circled back only to disvover she had upped the bid again. After 8 or 10 back and forth trips and bids I confronted Betsy. "Hey, do you REALLY want that set?" She said "Yes" as she was doing her 25th year in Ann Arbor that fall and wanted to fill the table with silver and pewter sets. So, in the spirit of Christian kindness, I appealed to her with this carrot, "Look I'm younger than you" (what ever made me say such a thing?! Where's the nearest priest so I can confess?). "....and I really love that set, so I'll tell you what I'll do.. I'll buy it and let you borrow it." She smiled that wonderful Betsy smile that no doubt reflected Mary's own smile as she spoke to Jesus.... we agreed. Deal Done....not so fast Nativity Nerds. As we both circled back to check the bid, unfortunately we discovered another bidder had leaped into the fray. The bids kept going up and up and I kept writing my name down until the auction closed... I WON... well - Betsy was the real winner. The other person you ask....I really need to talk to someone about a confession...
To this day I never fail to mention Betsy and Eileen when I display this set. BTW, it's from Canada. The company that made this set is Seagull Pewter. I've seen a few of these online but they don't make them any longer. And just for your information, Eileen said I paid more for this set than she had when it was new! God works in strange ways....perhaps I didn't need that priest after all.
So, here's the sad part... Betsy developed some health issues years ago and recently passed away. A moment of silence please. Sadly her collection is currently being sold off in pieces. A second moment of silence and confession for my sins.
On the first day of the sale one of our FOTC members visited the sale, which is how we got these photos. She connected with the family and one of Betsy's daughters who also collects and displays. I hope to speak with her soon.
Why this blog? Well, it just seemed important to remember her and our collaboration and abiding faith we shared in different but not exclusive ways.
Stay tuned for part 2. Do not adjust your "sets."