Make Like a Wise Man and Head to this Nativity Exhibit in Palo Alto

1 min

You don't have to be a Christian or given to holiday season kitsch to appreciate the annual Christmas Crèche Exhibit at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Palo Alto.

For a couple thousand years now, the nativity scene has inspired artists all over the world to depict the magic of the Christmas story: Baby Jesus in a Bethlehem manger, surrounded by his parents, Mary and Joseph, the three wise men, shepherds, a host of farm animals and sometimes local villagers, too. It's an ancient tradition, as open to individual interpretation as there are humans on earth.

"It started with just a few people, with a few nativities, from a few places, in one room, and it’s grown to now, where we have it for five days and 10,000 people come every year as a tradition," says Marguerite Gong Hancock, co-director and co-founder, here all 32 years the church has been putting on this show.

This nativity scene from Ethiopia is painted on goat skin.
This nativity scene from Ethiopia is painted on goat skin. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

These days, people come by the busload from senior centers and elementary schools all over the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. Families and book clubs add lunch nearby and make a day of it in Palo Alto.

The exhibit now takes over the whole building, from the sanctuary to the basketball court. There are 50 countries represented, with more than 250 nativities in every media imaginable: paint, porcelain, crystal, driftwood, goat skin, tagua nut, recycled bicycle wheels, auto parts, et cetera.

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"We have a whole range, things that are from artists who may be internationally known to things that are made by school children," Gong Hancock says.

This nativity scene from Ecuador is carved out of tagua nut.
This nativity scene from Ecuador is carved out of tagua nut. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

Straining to remember whether this pastiche reflects the stories  told in biblical texts? Better to relax and accept this genre gives wide berth to artistic imagination and cultural diversity.

Thousands of people apply to feature their nativity scenes every year, but only ten percent or so are chosen. Gong Hancock and her co-curator try to contain the deluge with an annual theme.

This year, the theme is "Star of Wonder, Star of Night," referencing the popular Christmas carol, We Three KIngs. Of course, that's a broad theme. To further subcategorize, the church's seven rooms each focus on a color, media or geographic region, like Asia, or South America.

This nativity scene, constructed from bicycle parts, is called ""The hopes and fears of all the gears."
This nativity scene, constructed from bicycle parts, is called ""The hopes and fears of all the gears." (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

Where did this holiday staple begin? Gong Hancock explains, "The story goes that St. Francis of Assisi, in 1223, created the first nativity in Italy, inspired by seeing shepherds in the distance. Over time, people started to make beautiful figurines and statues, and the churches would put them on display. People would tour from church to church to church. So it's in that spirit that we have gathered nativity scenes and opened wide our doors, so that people can come and enjoy them."

There’s also live art, music, and marionette shows daily, as well as craft workshops for children. Is it over the top? Absolutely, but not in the materialistic way Americans have come to love and/or hate. The exhibit is free, the labor is volunteered, and the art is surprising and delightful, regardless of whether Christianity is your jam.

The 32 annual Christmas Crèche Exhibit runs December 7-11, 2019 at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Palo Alto. Details here.