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The world's largest collection of nativity scenes is believed to be in Iowa

Nativities Hills Bank
Sam McIntosh
On the 800th anniversary of the first nativity scene displayed by Saint Francis of Assisi, 2,540 scenes of all different sizes are on display for the public to view during business hours now through January at Hills Bank in Washington.

What began as a marketing effort for an Iowa opera house has grown to a collection of over 2,500 nativity sets.

The largest collection of nativity sets in the world may very well be on display right now at the Hills Bank in Washington, Iowa.

Collector Mike Zahs hopes Guinness World Records will make the feat official, but for now, he's just happy to share his collection with the public.

Washington County-based historian Mike Zahs stands before some of his 2,540 nativity scenes on display at Hills Bank in Washington.
Sam McIntosh
Washington County-based historian Mike Zahs stands before some of his 2,540 nativity scenes on display at Hills Bank in Washington.

Zahs, a historian and retired teacher probably best known for his film preservation efforts documented in the 2017 feature Saving Brinton, owns over 2,500 nativity sets — 2,540, to be exact. The miniature scenes featuring Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus are made from a variety of materials, from wood to yak wool and corn stalks, and their origins span over 100 countries. Many were hand-painted, almost all of them have handmade parts.

All of the sets are on display at the bank through January, the vast arrangement welcoming patrons in the lobby and overwhelming the conference and meeting rooms. Some are even tucked into storage closets.

"They're everywhere we could put them," Zahs said.

The setup is special — this is the first, and likely last, time Zahs will display the entire collection at once. After all, it took 15 truckloads and roughly six weeks to move all the nativities and set up their pieces in the bank.

"I don't anticipate doing it again, I'm old," Zahs explained.

An unexpected collection

Historian Michael Zahs holds a wooden nativity scene.
Sam McIntosh
The exact number of mass-produced nativities in the collection is unknown, but almost all of them have handwork of some type, much of them hand painted.

Like most collections, Zahs says his started without him realizing. He received his first nativity set as a gift from his aunt as a young child, but his true collection didn't start until later, when he borrowed 100 sets for a promotional display at the Ainsworth Opera House.

The display was a hit, and by the following holiday season's arrival, Zahs' collection had doubled, with none of the nativities borrowed.

"It just grew," he said.

Now, Zahs is gifted his sets, or he picks them up from auctions and second-hand stores. While he has a few duplicates, each set is special, and he has a hard time picking favorites. He can tell the unique history of each and every nativity he owns, and explain the significance of the colors used in each, or how they were made.

"It's 2,500 different ways to tell the same story," he says.

An Iowa connection

While many of Zahs' nativities were produced in other countries and shipped overseas, a few were made locally. In the bank's lobby, front and center, is a large set that features a depiction of It's a Wonderful Life's Donna Reed as Mary. Reed, who was born in Denison, was won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her 1953 performance in From Here to Eternity. Zahs believes it may be the rarest set in the collection.

Another set, made in Iowa, is carved out of the book, The Bridges of Madison County.

While the collection is up, Zahs is available at request to give guided tours or programs, but once it comes down, he hopes it doesn't spend the rest of his days in a box. He dreams, as the public wanders throughout the bank, that someone will ask to place the nativities in a museum.

Josie Fischels is a Digital News producer at Iowa Public Radio. She is a 2022 graduate of the University of Iowa’s school of journalism where she also majored in theater arts (and, arguably, minored in the student newspaper, The Daily Iowan). Previously, she interned with the Denver Post in Denver, Colorado, and NPR in Washington, D.C.
Samantha McIntosh is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio. Prior to IPR, Samantha worked as a reporter for radio stations in southeast and west central Iowa under M&H Broadcasting, and before that she was a weekend music host for GO 96.3 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa