Nativity Figures

Collecting vintage Nativity figures covers a variety much larger than first meets the eye and can be considered a wonderful collectible regardless of the religious connotation. The challenge becomes the variety involved based on countries (Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Spain, USA, etc.) or media (paper, paper mache, plaster, terra cotta, salt, etc.) or scale (from pocket-sized to enormous floor-sized figures for churches). Then there are all the endless varieties involved within each of these areas. Where to begin?

Antique Nativity Figurines SetThose collectors who lean toward the fine quality and detail of early German items might also consider including Nativity figures that were created in similar fashion as the popular Belsnickles with just as much detail in the facial expressions and into their clothing. The top photo of the Three Kings shows three rare German figures of hollow paper mache with extended hands and arms that involved several extra steps in production, made by Marolin about 1905-1915 based on a Richard Mahr design. They are among the first cast paper mache figures made. With minor changes, the set was available and sold through Sears until about 1930, when Weigert designs became popular. The set is available in seven sizes. The stick-leg camel has glass eyes. Collectors who grew up in the 1950/60’s period might collect the other end of the spectrum: Woolworth’s Nativity figures (right) that were sold in bins so the consumer could pick and choose what to put in their scene. These hollow composition figures were from both Japan and Italy where molds were often copied with slight changes leaving today’s collector with a seemingly never-ending variety.

Bisque Figurines Snow Babies

bisque_figures-snow_babies1The earliest Christmas bisque figures and snow babies date from the early 1900’s and are typically 3″ or taller. These figures predominantly portray children and adults, although other figures were also made (Santas, bears, etc.). Some pieces were decorated with a grout that represented snow; mostly this grout was white but in some cases it was a beautiful blue or pink. These larger pieces are exquisite in their detail.

After WWI, the pieces made were smaller (most under 3″) and included Santas, elves, snowmen, children and animals in a variety of settings. These pieces are more plentiful than the earlier, larger pieces. Some are marked Germany or Japan on the bottom, some are incised with a production number on the back, and others have no mark. The German pieces generally have better detailing but some Japanese pieces can rival their German counterpart in quality. The picture shows a grouping of the smaller snow baby pieces dating from the 1920’s to 1930’s. The pieces from this era either have white “snow” or are “unsnowed”.

Snow babiesBisque figures have been produced after WWII and some resemble earlier pieces. So if you are interested in the antique versions, become familiar with these later pieces.


Lavender Robe BelschnikleBelsnickles are prized Christmas collectible figures that were made in Germany from the 1870’s until the time of World War I. The name is derived from Pelz Nichol, or fur-dressed Santa, and was changed to Belsnickle by German immigrants in the United States. Some of these figures were candy containers and other, larger versions were sold as store window display pieces to attract shoppers at Christmas. Belsnickles were usually made of papier mâché or chalk. They were molded with characteristics which included a stern face and one arm holding a feather tree sprig or switches to punish naughty children.

BOrange Belsnickleelsnickles came in a variety of colors, with white being the most common and brown or purple the more difficult to find. They also were made from very small figures of an inch or two in height to rare large ones over two feet tall. The smaller forms can have a metal holder on top of the head for hanging on a tree. Often the figures were decorated with mica as snow. Collectors look for Belsnickles which have unusual features. They may stand on a snowball base or have an unusual hat or head piece such as a crown or wreath. Very rare figures have an open mouth showing teeth or have, instead of a molded or fur beard, one that has been fashioned of glass icicles.

Christmas Angels

Marolin Angels 1
A pair of composite Angels holding candles from the 1950s manufactured by Marolin of Germany.

When historians describe the ancient tradition of the Nativity, ‘angels’ have always had prominent places in the scenes recreated to visualize the gospel accounts of the events that led to the birth of Christ. The angel Gabriel, with hand outstretched, announced God’s plan for Mary. The ‘herald angel’ along with the multitude of ‘heavenly hosts’ (angels) appeared to the shepherds in the field with glad tidings. An angel appeared in a dream to Joseph warning him of Herod and to take the child and flee. Our Christmas traditions are filled with images of angels.

A collection of wax and composite Angels dating back to the 1800s.

Christmas enthusiasts have always collected angels, not only for their nativity scenes, but also as: ornaments, tree toppers, candy containers, Christmas cards, candles, candle holders, planters, angel bands, snow babies, jewelry, dishes, cookie cutters, C6 & C7 figural lights, lighted wall plaques, music, books and so on. Virtually any area of Christmas collecting will have an ‘angel’ in some form associated with it.

Over the millennia, from antique to modern, angels have been crafted using a variety of techniques including: hand carved from wood, poured wax, wax-over-composition, papier-mache, clay, pressed cardboard, paper, fabric, bisque, porcelain, glass, molded salt, gum tragacanth, corn husks, plastic, tin, lead, and almost any other readily available material. Interestingly, angels made from celluloid are virtually unknown.


The Erzgebirge region of Germany was the largest Christmas item and toy supplier in the world in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. The Erzgebirge villages of Schneeberg, Olbernhau, Annaberg and Seiffen were the most famous of all producing Christmas items as early as 1830-1840. Pyramids were the first items produced. A typical pyramid has three levels, each level has a different scene and is powered by candles. These were followed by smokers, nutcrackers, Schwibbogen arches, nativities, and the most collectable – miniature horse drawn carts, sleds, animals, people and houses. This was a cottage industry which the entire family from small children to grandparents were involved. Families became known for the particular product they produced. Some families carved strictly animals while others made carts or pyramids. These items were hand painted and all have a wonderful folk art charm. Each piece is slightly different. Wood carved Christmas items and toys are still produced in the Erzgebirge region today in the same time honored tradition as generations before.

Germany gave us the Christmas traditions we know and love today. Some Erzgebirge carved pieces were hung on trees, while Schwibbogen arches and pyramids were placed in windows. The most sought after pieces are carts, animals, people and houses. These were used to create a Christmas putz.