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Collecting Christmas Creches This Holiday Season

Shown is my own set purchased around 1980 at Imperial Display right here in Wheeling.

Christmas collectors often focus on one type of ornament or holiday decoration. Santa, snowmen, angels and reindeer are of a few of the themes enthusiasts enjoy. But what could be more appropriate than Nativity scenes? There are a wide variety of styles to search for, from fancy expensive sets to handmade and homespun versions and there are many collectors who enjoy saving and displaying creches all over the world.

Since most cultures interpret the Christmas story in their own way, there are nativity sets that feature the Holy Family as representing different ethnicities and eras. Each creche then tells an international story of local architecture, costumes, trees and animals that identifies where the creche was made.

Many travelers look for creches as a collectible souvenir and enjoy the variety of materials and craftsmanship that can be found in these cultural creations. Creches come in all sizes, too.

Another way to collect nativity sets is by manufacturer. Some of the top names in collectible creches include Fontanini, Hummel, Roman and fine china manufactures like Mikasa and Lenox. Even Marx Toys made a plastic Nativity set some years ago that was designed for children and is now collectible.

I saw one that is a snowglobe version just this past week at the Wilson Lodge gift shop that was new to me. It looked like a picture frame surrounding the Holy Family and when shook it sprinkled snow. There was also a light-up button on this new collectible by Kurt Adler, a huge importer of holiday decorations headquartered in New York City.

The vintage gold-trimmed Fontanini set shown in my column today was purchased as a gift for my daughter Angela, by her thoughtful husband, Chad. She was delighted.

I discovered the treasure in the classified ads of the News-Register and knew that it was the perfect choice, since it was a quality Italian example and owned by a careful collector who was downsizing.

Fontanini called this set its “Golden Edition Heirloom Nativity,” and it is described in the packaging as the “first limited edition set from the House of Fontanini.” Each hand-painted figure is six-and-a-half inches in height. It also includes a custom stable that is larger than most. The Nativity dates to 1993 and is numbered 1,095 of 2,500 sets.

The other Nativity pictured is my own Italian version that my mother bought me at Imperial Display around 1980. I display it each December on my dining room mantel, adding my little Hummel children as additional figures visiting the manger on the ledge just above the manger.

There are several online groups for those who collect nativity sets or are interested in doing so. One is called “Friends of the Creche,” and it started in Bethlehem, Pa. naturally. Visit them at friendsofthecreche.org. Another webpage to explore is mynativity.com.

Other nationalities call the Christmas Nativity scene belen, creche, crib, jeslicky, manger, nacimiento, pesebre, presepio, putz, or szopka, depending on their native language and tradition. All Nativities though translate the simple story of a family, a newborn and God made Man.

Another interesting creche fact I learned when writing this column is that Pittsburgh has the world’s only authorized replica of the Vatican’s Christmas creche on display in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. It is located at 600 Grant St., U.S. Steel Plaza (private property), and is on display annually during the holidays.

The word creche is French in origin and means crib, though St. Francis of Assisi is considered the originator of nativity sets in Greccio, Italy in 1223. Today, Nativity sets are an international reminder of the real meaning of Christmas. Collecting creches can be a rewarding hobby that is enjoyed throughout the year and shared with family, friends and visitors to your home each December.

For comments or suggestions on local treasures to be featured in Antique of the Week, Maureen Zambito can be reached via email at zambitomaureen@hotmail.com or by writing in care of the Sunday News-Register, 1500 Main St., Wheeling, WV 26003.

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