GUILFORD—At the end of Shirley Squires’s driveway sits a detached garage just a few feet from the kitchen entrance to her Guilford house.
The garage used to have bays for two automobiles, but the left side now sports a people-sized door, not one for cars.
An oval sign on the door reads “Shirley’s Touch Of Heaven.”
If, for you, “heaven” means Christmas decorations — twinkling lights, chubby Santa and Mrs. Claus, beautiful angels with flowing hair, snow-touched villages, and nativity scenes...especially nativity scenes, then step right in to her converted garage.
“I have over 1,300 sets [of crèches] in my garage room, in my home, and there are some of mine over at Holton Home, too,” says Squires.
And this does not include the thousands of colored lights, hundreds of Christmas storybooks, handfuls of Advent calendars, and other Christmas-related decor Squires has lined up — covering every available shelf, table, windowsill, hutch, and counter — throughout her home and the left half of the garage her son converted into a heated room.
Although Squires says she “has always loved Christmas,” she does not spend three-and-a-half months decorating just for herself.
“I put my number in the paper” to invite groups of people to come to her house, she says.
“I usually have about 250 guests each year,” Squires says, “and I don’t know a lot of them.”
She says tours come from schools and nursing homes, or consist of groups of friends and families, to visit her garage room, the two upstairs bedrooms in her home, and the kitchen, dining room, living room, and den, to marvel at Shirley’s Touch Of Heaven.
During the nativity days, Squires says, “I’m sort of in a museum, and not in a house.”
“I don’t charge anyone to come and see,” she says, but just inside the door to the house, on the kitchen counter next to the guest book, sits a small bowl. Inside the bowl is a handful of singles and five-dollar bills.
“Oh, I don’t want money from people,” Squires says. “It would defeat the purpose.”
If people insist upon leaving her a donation, she takes the money and divides it between the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont, of which she sits on the board, and Brattleboro Area Hospice, of which she is an active hospice volunteer.
“Right now I have a 102-year-old,” says the 84-year-old Squires.
Squires has collected Christmas cheer for most of her adult life.
“When my husband was alive, he said I had too many decorations,” she said. After he passed away, she wanted to begin a collection, she said, and nativities won out.
“I never imagined it would turn into this,” Squires said. “I love the Nativity and what it stood for, and that’s why I collected it. Once I collected enough, I thought, ‘I need to share this. I can’t keep it to myself.’ It’s not worth it not to share.”
She began inviting the public to her home in 1997, and has done so every year since, except for last year, when illness precluded her annual holiday tradition.
Squires reports she feels “human again” and is excited for this year’s event, which began Dec. 1, and continues until the end of February.
Squires purchased about half of her crèches, often from thrift stores and tag sales.
“I try not to buy them when I see them,” she said, “but I usually don’t succeed.”
Once the word got out about Squires and her collection, the other half came from family and friends, especially those who travel.
“I have nativities from over 55 countries,” she said, making special mention of the carved wooden nativity scene Richard Davis, a registered nurse and neighbor, brought her from Israel, and another from Hawaii.
“Lise Sparrow [Pastor of the Guilford Community Church] has brought me many foreign sets from her trips,” Squires said.
Other than the sets her family made for her — including a mixed-media piece incorporating photographs of her great-grandchildren in nativity-scene costumes — Squires’s favorite nativity is her 180-piece Fontanini set.
Squires says the nativity figures made in Italy by the family-owned business are “very popular” among the crèche-loving set, for their “really unbelievable,” highly-detailed Polymer pieces.
In addition to the usual manger housing Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, three wise men, a shepherd, some sheep, and maybe a donkey or two, Fontanini envisions the entire village, replete with camels, merchants in their booths, people of all ages and functions, and even a teenage boy lazing on a hillock.
Squires’s Fontanini nativity scene sits among sandy lanes atop a platform covering the entirety of a double-size bed, in an upstairs bedroom with spotlights, colorful holiday lights, and an animatronic angel about the size of a toddler.
When asked how much her electric bill goes up during the holiday season, Squires said, “My electric bill is more in the summer with the dehumidifiers. Those little lights don’t add much to my bill.”
Squires then smiled and said, “People enjoy it so much. It’s all worth it, just to see the expression on their faces.”