KIRTLAND, Ohio — Beautiful creches made of traditional fabrics, glass, porcelains and jewels along with pressed tin, newspaper, clay and even bullet casings draw thousands from near and far to the Historic Kirtland Visitors' Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints each December for the Historic Kirtland Nativity Exhibit.
From Japan, this Nativity scene is made of porcelain and resembles origami artwork. The set is on display in Kirtland, Ohio, as part of the 2017 Historic Kirtland Nativity Exhibit that is a popular annual event. | Marc Haddock
Of the 954 creches, which are mostly loaned or donated by local collectors, there are impressive variations of the traditional mother, baby and Joseph with sheep, donkeys and the not-so-traditional giraffes, lions, a hippo and, in one clay crèche, a snake and a turtle.
This year, the 13th year for the event, 954 creches from the Kirtland area are on display in the center's foyer and adjacent rooms from the end of November through Jan. 5.
Tanya Greenway is in charge of the collection and the display of creches precious to the hearts of those who share them. She catalogs each one. Pieces in the permanent collection are safely stored away each year until the next.
She works from early October to the end of November to get them all displayed just right. She wants every one to get its own share of attention and light.
Sometimes she has to set up a Nativity scene several times and in various places before she is satisfied with the result.
“It takes some time and thought,” she said.
The exhibit features unique Nativity scenes from 72 countries, including from Africa, Liberia, Thailand, Germany, France, Italy, Indonesia, China, Rwanda and India.
They’re created of stained glass, bottle and broom brush, paper, straw, fabric, gold leaf, copper, olive wood, beeswax, clay, brass and oil drums. Others in the display are carved, sculpted or cut from soda pop cans.
Kirtland resident Travis Burford welded his from nails and bolts.
Nativity scenes can be tucked into very small spaces such as inside a walnut, shown at the 2017 Historic Kirtland Nativity Exhibit in December 2017 in Kirtland, Ohio. | Marc Haddock
Tiny ones are nestled inside a walnut or a Corbil seed. Others are set in geodes. Still more are Christmas cards or tree ornaments.
There are Berta Hummel classic sets, Della Robbia and Lladro pieces. Another is made from English Wedgewood porcelain, and a rare set is a Limoges Paulani from the Louis XVI era.
The Limoges Paulani "King's Cake" set is the most valuable set, Greenway said. The figures were usually hidden in a cake and found during a holiday celebration.
The smallest is a tiny, silver square crèche on a sparkly silver chain.
One scene was made at the end of World War II as a gift to a soldier. It’s set inside a small “tomb” that is shaped like a bullet that opens and closes.
Another is a tiny nesting doll crèche with a baby only as big as a kernel of rice.
Some, like one from El Salvador, have big baby Jesus pieces in the tradition of cultures that believe the Christ child should be large, as he is the center of the story.
One is a porcelain origami crèche from Japan, and there’s a hand-painted egg from Israel. In the children’s room, there are Nativity scenes featuring Eskimos or Legos, and one featuring a rubber ducky and gnomes. A s’more Nativity scene is created out of marshmallows on a graham cracker.
The overall effect is stunning and moving.
This Nativity scene, made as a small tomb that opens and is shaped like a bullet when it's closed, was a gift to a local soldier's family when he was killed in World War II. It's part of the Historic Kirtland Nativity Exhibit in Kirtland, Ohio, in December 2017.| Marc Haddock
For many of the donors, it’s become a tradition to share their treasures with the 10,000 visitors who come every year. Greenway said usually they get between 9,000 and 10,000 people who make it a point to come see what's new.
One woman makes a four-hour drive from Rochester, New York, to deliver her Nativity set, Greenway said.
Donations for the exhibit are solicited through posters, Facebook and by LDS missionaries as they work in the mission area.
The event has won an award of recognition from the Board of Friends of the Creche, according to Greenway. The Nativity display was on the list of Bus Tours of America's "Top 100 Events in North America for 2011," according to mormonnewsroom.org
Every effort is made to collect, display and properly protect each crèche, Greenway said.
Greenway said she and her helpers are aware that the Nativity sets are precious, even priceless, to those who share them.
“My favorite is the one from the Netherlands with the baby Jesus in a tiny wooden clog. Mary is standing behind him with tulips in her arms and Joseph is playing the accordian,” Greenway said. “Another favorite is the one with Joseph tossing the baby Jesus in the air.”
She’s continually surprised at the love and imagination that shines through the hundreds of entries.
“It’s pretty amazing how many more people have Christ in Christmas than you might expect,” she said.
If you go:
What: Historic Kirtland Nativity Exhibit hosted by Friends of the Kirtland Ohio Stake
Where: Historic Kirtland Visitors' Center, 7800 Kirtland Chardon Road, Kirtland, Ohio
When: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays and Saturdays; 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays
Cost: Free admission with free on-site parking
Sharon Haddock is a professional writer with more than 40 years' experience, 17 at the Deseret News. Her personal blog is at sharonhaddock.blogspot.com.