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Unusual nativity scenes catch on among collectors

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Posted: Wednesday, December 6, 2000 10:00 pm

Each Christmas, Susan Lethbridge of Galt unpacks dozens of boxes and lovingly places each of her 200 nativities in its own special place in her home.

As she arranges each angel, donkey, lamb and the baby Jesus, she caresses the faces of beloved old friends.

Each one brings back special memories of origin. Some are needlepoint made by Lethbridge or a close friend. Some were made by her children. Many are treasured gifts from her husband, Scott, and from special relatives.

People all over the world now collect nativities, or crèches, as they are commonly called.

Crèche is French for "crib" or "place of safety," like the manger in which Jesus was placed.

It is only in recent years that nativities have been displayed in homes. There is a long-standing tradition among Catholics of creating a nativity in a church. Generally, Protestants sponsored live nativity scenes inside or in front of their churches.

Lodi dentist Cliff Kerr hangs the "Arctic Angel" on a totem pole in an Alaskan nativity he displays in his office. (Courtesy photo)

A crèche is something personal, an intimate family story: Mother, father, and child. So it is only natural that is has moved from the sanctuary into the home, at the same time becoming a popular art or folk craft. Nativities come from every country in the world and are unique because they use the crafts of the local culture and the clothing and facial features of the natives.

Beth Street of Stockton has a collection of 65 nativities from all over the world. One is made from seedpods and various seeds native to Honduras. Another is from Laos and features a stable on stilts to protect the baby Jesus from floods as he hangs in a basket from the ceiling. The local animals are made from teakwood and are common to the citizens of Laos.

Nativities often have special meaning to their owners.

Cliff Kerr, a Lodi dentist, courted his wife along the Inside Passage of Alaska and spent time in Sitka taking pictures and writing magazine articles.

The family searched for several years for an Alaskan nativity, finally finding one made of dough by an artisan in Sitka. It features an igloo stable, surrounded by a walrus, seal, bear, moose and other Alaskan animals. The baby Jesus is wrapped in fur and watched over by an arctic angel.

Kandee Stone of Lodi collects nativities and was thrilled to find a Pueblo crèche that reminded her husband, Brad, of his two-year mission among the Navajos in Arizona.

Many nativities are gifted to their owners by someone special. Lodian Jeri Wheeler received one from her husband, Rick, last Christmas. It features a penguin Mary who watches over a penguin Jesus in an ice block bed.

A penguin Joseph stands near with a penguin angel holding a star. An ice block arch with holly and star complete the set.

Nativities can be made from anything - buttons, thimbles, corks, clay, cornhusks, porcelain and other materials. Some are edible cookies that children gleefully devour after they are displayed, but most nativities are kept in the family for generations.

Claire Lima has an antique German crèche that has been passed down through the family for 100 years. Jim and Wilma Babcock have one they have treasured for 40 years. Individuals often designate in their wills who will inherit their treasured sets.

Because of the popularity of collecting nativities, crèche displays are exhibited in cities throughout the world. Lodi is no exception. It began 10 years ago as Brad and Ann Taylor, former Lodi residents, displayed 25 pieces belonging to Taylor's mother who lives in Palo Alto and has a collection of over 300 sets.

Since then, collecting has caught on in Lodi and a crèche display is organized every few years. People have been known to buy nativities and save them especially for the next display.

This year's exhibit, which is nondenominational and features over 300 nativities, begins Friday from noon to 9 p.m. and will continue Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 9 a.m. at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at 1510 Century Blvd. in Lodi. Admission is free and children are invited to visit the children's activity room.

Live music throughout the day will enhance the experience of glimpsing Christmas art and culture from around the world.

Comments about this story? Send mail to the News-Sentinel newsroom.



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