The Christian world has such a large array of Christmas traditions, some may get little attention for years and years, only to surface later with newfound enthusiasm and gusto.

The last decade, for instance, has brought the nativity scene back into prominence. It was originally a Catholic tradition, but all Christianity seems to be rediscovering the free-standing manger scenes, with crib, Mary, Joseph, sheep, cattle, wisemen, shepherds - and in the case of many Latin American countries - everything else from toy soldiers to stuffed Teddy bears.

Officially called a creche (kresh), the nativity scene seems to pick up a certain regional flair from each country. Not only the name changes (Weihnachtskrippe in German; Presepio in Italian; nacimiento in Spanish) but the very character and personality of the figures seem to tap into the local color. (The Indian nativity figures on this page with their full features and stoic expressions are a prime example.)

One of the most famous creches is the Christmas Creche at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where 140 porcelain figures are hung on a tree as ornaments each year.

Tracing the history of the nativity scene, like so many folk customs, is tricky, since so many folktales and traditions tend to cloud its true evolution. As best we know, the creche began to play a major role in Christmas celebrations about the time of the Counter Reformation. Building the nativity scene one piece at time, in fact, was to become a Jesuit religious exercise in the 1560s.

In 1291 Arnolfo da Cambio carved three free-standing figures for his chapel (Baby Jesus, Joseph and Mary) and became known as the originator of the modern nativity scene, though Saint Francis of Assisi, the little saint who seems to be almost omnipresent in Catholic tradition, is said to have built one in 1223 using living things. He placed a young babe in a manger scene, led an ox and an ass up to the baby and sang the gospel story as an enraptured crowd listened.

Italy - the breeding ground of so many Christian traditions - can be credited with making the creche international. Today the small sets can be found in almost every city of the world.

Including Salt Lake City.

"We've had a steady interest in our nativity scenes for three years now, and a constant demand during the Christmas season," says Father Schueller, director of the Catholic Center and Paraclete Gift Shop here. "People seem to be most interested in quality work; nativities that look realistic and are well crafted. Our distributor tells me there's been a marked increase in interest this year alone; you could even use the words `tremendous interest.' We think it has to do with people growing tired of a commercialized Christmas.

"In all, we have about a dozen versions on hand, ranging from the three figures of Mary, Joseph and Jesus to large 20-piece sets. They're made in Italy and imported."

Many - perhaps most - gift shops throughout the state offer nativity sets this time of year. One is Appleyard Art on Highland Drive.

"People have really taken an interest in the versions we have," says Stefany Valentine. "The small, porcelain ones have been very hot sellers. Parents tell us their children all want little nativity sets for their own bedrooms this year."

In the end, whether the creche becomes another Christmas tradition that's fated to fall in and out popularity, or - like the Christmas tree and wreath - show some real staying power remains to be seen.

For now, the nativity is a charming Old World custom that has begun to add even more texture to an already rich Utah Christmas tradition.