A small collection of artisan crafted nativity scenes is a special part of the Christmas decorations at our house. They were all purchased in the 1970s when we lived in Texas.

Just before our first wedding anniversary, we moved to Dallas, where Ken had enrolled in graduate school at Southern Methodist University. What a great experience for two young pups from Indiana! In the 5 1/2 years before our daughter was born, we made the most of the area.

We loved the Dallas antique shops on McKinney Avenue and the clubs and restaurants springing up on Greenville Avenue, the Kimbell and Amon Carter art museums in Fort Worth, and the local amazing Tex-Mex food. And there was no better place to shop than Dallas. I did much more looking than shopping at Neiman Marcus, but returned again and again to the quirky Olla Podrida mall (long since closed) to buy gifts, candles and holiday decorations.

Olla Podrida shopping mall in Dallas, Texas in the 1970s (photo credit, Pinterest)

Our nativity collection began at Olla Podrida with the purchase of a primitive terra-cotta crèche made in Colombia. We’d never seen anything like it – clearly handmade and depicting traditional clothing of the South American country. It was the Christmas story, a new cultural perspective, and artistic expression all rolled into one. It was such a special addition to our holiday that first year in Texas.

Terracotta nativity made in Colombia

We never intended to have more than one nativity scene, let alone build a small collection. We were so enamored with our Colombian clay crèche, however, that we began to spot other interesting artisan nativities when shopping. We didn’t go out looking for them, but they sure found us. We developed a real appreciation for the creativity and craftsmanship of the handmade nativities. Luckily for the student budget, most were fashioned from clay, wood or a gesso-like material, and all were very inexpensive.

Nativity made in Nigeria from cotton tree thorns

Our favorite nativity scene is the set of small figures made in Nigeria. Each piece is hand carved from thorns of the three types cotton trees found in the region. Each tree variety produces a different color thorn – brown, tan or pink – used for separate parts of most figures, glued together. If you’d like to learn more about nativity scenes made in Africa, visit the website of the Museum of Ethnography (Budapest, Hungary).

Colorful doors open to reveal tiny brightly colored ceramic figures these nativity scenes made in Peru. This form of Peruvian folk art is known as the retablo.

Peruvian retablos

This small (6-inch square) nativity wall hanging, hand embroidered in brightly colored threads on coarse handwoven fabric, was made in Mexico.Mexico

These two single piece nativities both made in Guatemala, but with different types of clay. This red terracotta crèche is known as a “Shell Nativity” due to the shape and the scalloped edges of the grotto.

This hanging nativity is made of lightweight gesso-like material and finished with shiny bright paint. It was made in Ecuador. Ecuador2

On the left is a one piece olive wood nativity hand crafted by artisans in the Bethlehem area for travelers visiting the area’s holy sites.  On the right, this handmade nativity made in India is a set of dark carved mango wood pieces accented with brass features. Originally these type of printing blocks were used for printing designs on the silk saris worn by the wealthy Hindu women in India.

Another terracotta crèche from Colombia, this nativity is more modern in interpretation and much deeper in red color than our first Colombian set. Colombia2-5When we traveled to Rome and the Vatican in celebration of our 60th birthdays, we saw incredible representations of the nativity in statues and paintings. Works by world renowned artists like Da Vinci, Caravaggio, and Giotto are in prestigious museums & religious locations world wide.

Yet I can’t help but reflect, as I look at our little crèche treasures this Christmas Eve, that “simple” is just as compelling a reminder of the story of Christmas – a story told around the world by more cultures than I can count.

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Feliz Navidad, Buon Natale, Mele Kalikimaka, Joyeux Noel, Nollaig Shona, Giáng sinh vui vẻ – Merry Christmas!

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One thing that makes my journey unique is that all of my interests are driven by a joyful and genuine curiosity. I delight in finding less expensive ways to make something or creative ways to enjoy something longer. Finding and creating joy - and sharing it - is core to who I am.