A Christmas creche may include a Chinese wise man with a long queue of hair, or a Native American tepee. The people smiling at the newborn Jesus could be made from banana fiber in Africa or white-washed clay in Bangladesh.
And the animals? Well, don't always expect the traditional donkey or sheep.
"You might see puffins or penguins," Palo Alto resident Marguerite Hancock says.
Hancock's church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Palo Alto, is one of the best places around to appreciate this diversity. Hancock is a longtime volunteer with the annual Christmas creche exhibit that's now in its 24th year there.
The five-day show features a varied array of about 500 creches from 60-some countries, on loan from other churches as well as from Hancock and other individual collectors. It's free, as are the periodic performances by musicians and marionette artists in the church.
Last year, the event drew nearly 10,000 people from as far away as India, Italy, Australia and Singapore, says Teena James, who handles exhibit publicity. Hundreds of volunteers set up the show over six days, staff it and take it down. This season, the exhibit will be open Dec. 3 through Dec. 7, from noon to 9 p.m., at the church at 3865 Middlefield Road.
St. Francis of Assisi is credited with starting the creche tradition in 1223, when he set up an outdoor manger scene in the Italian town of Greccio. It was what came to be known as a "living nativity," with live animals and human performers. Scenes both living and static, indoor and outdoor, became popular in many countries and remain especially so in Italy, where a presepio, or creche, is a common holiday sight in towns throughout the nation.
In Marguerite Hancock's home, there are creches nearly everywhere you turn. Even in the bathroom, where nativity figures line a shelf and a miniature scene that could fit in an orange peel stands over the sink. Christmas trees glow in the living room, the dining area, children's rooms.
Every year, the family starts decorating for the holidays on Thanksgiving weekend, before the big exhibit set-up begins at the church.
"The spirit should start with me," Hancock says.
At the moment, Hancock has several of her own creches set up at her house, to give a Weekly reporter a preview before they are moved to the church. A classic Italian scene greets visitors from atop a glossy grand piano. Carved from marble, the figures have elegantly draped robes. Mary holds her hands together in prayer over the baby, and a particularly regal-looking man stands solemnly
"You can see that even a king has taken off his crown to acknowledge the king of kings," Hancock says.
This scene used to be displayed in a Chicago department store, as far back as the years preceding World War II, Hancock says. She has bought other creches in her travels, and friends have also given her nativity scenes to add to her collection.
In a nearby window, another creche is composed of metal silhouettes made from big oil drums in India. A cast-bronze creche from Africa has Mary playfully swinging the baby high over her head as musicians play a drum and xylophone.
In an Indonesian scene displayed on a kitchen island, the dark-wood figures have their arms bent so that either Mary or Joseph can hold the baby.
One of the works of art has special meaning to Hancock. It's carved out of wood from the linden tree and comes from China, where Christianity is a minority religion. A few years ago, Hancock decided to honor her Chinese ancestry by commissioning a carver there to create a nativity scene.
The creche merges Chinese influences with a more traditional look, Hancock says. She points out a rooster — good luck in China — standing with Mary, Joseph and Jesus. A wise man has a long braid down his back, and an angel is mounted on high with chopsticks.
Soon the creche will be on view to the public, but for now Hancock has found the perfect place for it in her home — a 500-year-old, elaborately carved antique Chinese chest.
What: The 24th annual Christmas creche exhibit, with musical and marionette performances
Where: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 3865 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Dec. 3 through Dec. 7, noon to 9 p.m.
Info: Go to http://christmascreche.org or call 650-856-3781. Events on opening day include performances by the Zion Youth Choir at 4:30 p.m. and by the Menlo School Choir at 7 p.m., and marionette shows at 12:30, 1:30, 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. A full schedule is online.