NICHOLASVILLE, Ky. (FOX 56) – When Regina Milano opens her boxes and bins, it’s like unpacking memories. For the first time in several Christmases, she’s found a way to display the more than 200 nativity scenes she has collected over the past 40 years.

For her, each one is like opening a gift.

“Absolutely,” she said.

“And I say, ‘this is my favorite … no, this is my favorite. Oh, I forgot that one.’ They’re all my favorites, important and precious to me.”

Milano lives in a small apartment with her sister, so there’s not much room for the displays at home. She is allowed to store the many boxes in donated space not far from where she lives. In the past, she has displayed part of her collection at churches and the public library. But in 2020, COVID prevented her from taking her collection to the public.

This year, for the first time, she’s displaying the entire collection at her church, Nicholasville First Assembly of God on Wilmore Road. The pastor, Bruce Floyd, said he couldn’t say “no” when Milano approached him with idea, even though he knew it would take up a lot of space.

“I was happy to do it,’ Floyd said. “I really enjoy walking around and seeing all these different nativity scenes, and hearing about the places she got them, the history behind them. It’s wonderful.”

Some of the scenes are unusual, like the Native American ones, or one from Peru built in a canoe. There’s a tiny one inside a ceramic pepper and an ornament that tells the Christmas story in a nutshell.

Milano hopes each one reminds the viewer about the reason for the season.

“I want to please them, share my joy, my love for the season, and my Jesus.”

She said even though she grew up with stories of Santa, she chooses not to decorate with him, or elves and reindeer.

“It re-enforces the thought that Christmas has become so commercialized,” she said. “Gift-giving is so important that everything else is skipped over. The real gift that came at Christmas is ignored completely.”

Even though she loves all of her manger scenes, Milano really does have a favorite. It’s a large display that fills a corner of the church foyer that reminds her of the one her family built in her house when she was a little girl in Mexico. It’s a hillside scene, filled with symbols from her native country, including chickens, donkeys, and villagers in sombreros. The Christ Child sits on a throne.

The family lived in a house with dirt floors, so they would bring mounds of soil into the home to make the scene and cover it with succulents they gathered outside. She said her family would live the scene in place until mid-January. Now she builds it with boards and plastic plants.

“I don’t think the pastor would want me to bring dirt into the church,” she laughed.

She said the Mexican display brings back good memories.

“Because we were poor, they are also hard memories, but family is important to me.”

Milano’s family moved to the United States when she was 11-years-old, settling in Ohio. When she became a young woman, she married a man who became a minister in Jessamine County. Now widowed, she is a minister of sorts herself, often sharing her testimony with large groups who come to view her collection.

“This is really Christmas for me. The real Christmas is being allowed to share all of these with people,” she said.

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Milano hopes many people get to see her nativity scenes this year. Church hours are limited, so she’s only showing the displays by appointment. She can be reached at (586) 612-2196.