Restoring Grandpa’s Handmade Nativity Scene

In the winter of 1966 or 1967, a young father designed and hand-crafted an outdoor nativity scene to decorate the family home in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. David D. Hanneman (1933-2007) painted the set freehand and put it on display just under the garage window of his home on Wisconsin Avenue. The nativity scene was a fixture at the home in those early years, but eventually was put in storage and forgotten.

The original Nativity scene as built by David D. Hanneman, circa 1967.
The original Nativity scene as built by David D. Hanneman, circa 1967.

Forty years later, after David Hanneman died, the badly weathered Nativity figures were rescued from a trash can in the garage. Over the next 18 months they were restored to almost original condition and put on display in the Village of Mount Pleasant.

The original backers and braces were removed from the cutout figures of St. Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus. New 1-inch-thick plywood backers were crafted with a jigsaw, then glued to the figures and anchored with wood screws. Heavy L-shape stabilizing braces were screwed into the backers to give the figures sufficient weight to withstand winter winds.

Samantha J. Hanneman retouches details on the Baby Jesus figure built by her grandfather, David. D. Hanneman.
Samantha J. Hanneman retouches details on the Baby Jesus figure built by her grandfather, David. D. Hanneman.

Samantha J. Hanneman, David Hanneman’s granddaughter, did most of the paint restoration work. With a special set of art brushes, she applied metallic gold and flat black paint to maintain the original look. Touch up paint was applied sparingly to the faces and hands of the figures to keep the hand-drawn details.

The newly restored Nativity scene was put on display at the Hanneman home in Racine County in December 2008, making the old tradition new again for another generation. The crèche was displayed for several years, but had to again be put in storage when we lost our home.  Now the figures again wait patiently to have a new home where their warm glow will fill the Christmas night.

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first Nativity crib or crèche on Christmas Eve 1223 in Greccio, Italy. St. Francis was eager to make the birth of Christ something tangible for the faithful. He had a manger built, brought animals to be part of the set, and had Holy Mass said before this representation of the birth of Christ. After the preparations were finished, St. Francis and some of his followers went to the crèche for the Mass. After a short prayer by Francis, a vision of the Christ child appeared on the hay. The miracle stirred the animals and greatly moved the faithful who witnessed it.

©2014 The Hanneman Archive

3 thoughts on “Restoring Grandpa’s Handmade Nativity Scene”

  1. What a wonderful legacy and restoration project! Your daughter did a magnificent job. There is a special Christmas display in my family too, handed down from my great-grandfather, later restored by my grandma and grandpa. I’ll be blogging about that very soon. Thanks sharing your story. It’s very special.

    Liked by 1 person

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