The first Nativity set made by Bernice Stroh Sandstrom (1910-2003) is in the New Church Collection of Glencairn Museum (see photos left and below, 10.XX.566A-I). Donated to the museum by her husband, the Rev. Erik Sandström, the set, consisting of eight handmade figures, was made by Mrs. Sandström for her family around the year 1937.
She went on to make more sets for her family over the years, as well as sets for many other families. These Nativity figures now feature prominently in the Christmas decorations of many New Church households.
Bernice Stroh Sandström was born in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, in 1910 to Emil Frederick and Evelyn Frankish Stroh. She was raised in California, where her family moved when she was four, and later attended Bryn Athyn College for one year. She and her husband, the Rev. Erik Sandström, raised six children and were married for 67 years before she passed away in 2003.
Mrs. Sandström’s family believes that she was a child when she first began making dolls with paper-covered wire bodies. She refined her technique over the years, and every one of her figures was lovingly and individually crafted. Each has unique clothing, hair, and beautifully hand-drawn faces. Demand for the Nativity sets was great enough that a waiting list with many names had to be maintained. (See photo of circa 1985 Nativity set, left and below.) Eventually it became necessary to stop putting new names on the list, in order to finish the orders she already had. Nevertheless, she made sure that every one of her twenty-three grandchildren received a set. She continued crafting figures into her nineties. One family member observes: “it’s remarkable not only that she continued making these sets into her nineties, but she did it with severely arthritic fingers. But the affection for and dedication to the task (plus some Tylenol) overcame even that obstacle.”
In addition to the Nativity sets, Mrs. Sandström also made Easter and New Church Day figures, as well as various Biblical figures. Some of these were made specifically for the Kindergarten at the Bryn Athyn Church elementary school. A figure of Emanuel Swedenborg and an accompanying angel are currently on exhibit in the Swedenborgiana display case at the Swedenborg Library in Bryn Athyn. A few of her figures were made simply to entertain her own children; for instance, while the family was living in Sweden she made two trolls, Sotlugg and Linlugg, from one of her son’s favorite stories by Karin Fryxell.
Mrs. Sandström generously shared her craft with some Bryn Athyn women who asked her to conduct classes, and one of her daughters also carries on the tradition.
Rev. Erik Sandström passed away on December 11, 2007. His wife’s Nativity scene was set up nearby so he could see it from his bed, a soft light glowing from behind the manger.
Photo credits: The photographs of Mrs. Sandström’s original Nativity set were taken by Ed Gyllenhaal. (The circa 1985 set is owned by Ed and Kirsten Gyllenhaal.) The photograph of Erik and Bernice Sandström, taken on their silver wedding anniversary on March 1, 1961, is courtesy of the Sandström family.
The editors of NewChurchHistory.org would like to thank Eva Sandström Lexie and other members of the Sandström family for their help with this New Church History Fun Fact. Glencairn Museum maintains a file about the Bernice Sandström Nativity sets. If you have information or stories you would like to share please contact the editors.
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