Guardian of Nativities

Vancouver mom of 5 fulfills vow, displays hand-painted sets at church festival, home

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Natalie Holt’s church hosts the Festival of Nativities each year. She never had figurines she felt worthy of display, just a Fisher Price toy set and a rustic wooden one.

This year, though, three of the 600 Nativities at the event in early December were hers.

They were a gift she received in exchange for a promise: that she would make sure they would be displayed at the festival each year.

Nellie Mackey, who died in 1998, painted the ceramic Nativities. Last year, her husband, Marvin Mackey, read an article in The Columbian about the Festival of Nativities at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Vancouver’s Ellsworth Springs neighborhood. That’s where his late wife’s figurines belonged, he decided.

He called everyone named in the article before reaching the Holt family. Rosalind Holt, then 4, was pictured in the paper wearing a sheep costume she had donned as part of the festival activities.

Mackey told Natalie Holt, a Vancouver mother of five, that he wanted the three Nativity sets to be displayed at the church.

“I wanted to make sure he understood,” Holt, 39, recounted. “‘You know that this is just once a year, right?’ I asked him. ‘They don’t go on permanent display anywhere. It’s just this weekend. And would you want them back afterward?’”

Mackey said he didn’t. Holt said he told her, “I want to donate them so they can be displayed at this festival. And whoever will make sure they’re displayed can keep them.”

Holt picked up the Nativities from Mackey in the spring.

“When we got them, we were amazed at the talent. They were beautifully done,” Holt said.

With the festival over for the year, Holt has them out in her home. The most unusual of the three is painted pink and gray with rose-petal shingles on the stable.

“We have all of the Nativities out. I told my children they can’t breathe in the living room,” Holt joked. “They know they would be dead meat if they broke any.”

Before the festival this year, Holt tried to call Mackey to let him know about the festival. His phone was disconnected. She drove by his house to drop off a flier, and it looked vacant.

Mackey died in September at age 85.

“I really wanted him to be there,” Holt said. “But as it turns out, Marvin may have been to see (the Nativities) already, and instead, was able to bring Nellie with him.”