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Hobby That's Away, in a Manger

One well-traveled collector has amassed more than 300 creche sets from 80 countries; many reflect diverse cultures.


James Govan is a man on a mission: to promote and expand the 800-year-old creche tradition. His collection contains 300-plus sets from 80 countries.

Many collectors focus on traditional tabletop scenes, some of which include dozens of figures and shops re-creating Bethlehem at the time Jesus was born. But Govan, 65, prefers folk art creches. The rough-hewn, often abstract figures often have the facial features and dress of the culture that produced them and are made from such materials as wood, stone, clay, cloth, porcelain, rubber or shell.

Govan, of Arlington, Va., is displaying more than 70 of his Nativity scenes at two sites in Washington.

"They're no good stored away in a box," he said. "They're meant to be shared."

One of Govan's favorite scenes, by noted Polish woodcarver Antoni Kaminski, depicts baby Jesus and his parents flanked by 18 angels, three shepherds, the Magi and six villagers in traditional costume. Another, a work Govan commissioned from Navajo woodcarver Felix W. Yazzie of Arizona, portrays Jesus as a papoose and his parents as Native Americans in Dine (Navajo) dress; the Wise Men appear as chiefs from the Apache and Ute nations.

Other creches feature bamboo figures from China, acquired by a missionary 30 years ago and given to Govan by a fellow parishioner at St. Ann's Catholic Church in Arlington; brightly painted ceramic figures by Mexican artist Concepcion Aguilar; and cloth-and-wood characters by an unknown puppetmaker in Vladivostok, Russia. A wood scene by a Muslim carver in Malawi is among Govan's recent acquisitions.

Marjorie Yefchak, overseer of the 900-creche collection at the Marian Library at the University of Dayton in Ohio, said credit for Nativity scenes usually goes to St. Francis of Assisi. In 1223 in Rieta, Italy, using live animals, the monk staged what is believed to have been the first such scene.

A few decades later, Arnoldo di Cambio created the first known three-dimensional presepio, the Italian equivalent of a creche, Yefchak said. The art form gained popularity and spread into homes, palaces and churches worldwide. In the 1950s, Pope Pius XII helped reverse waning interest in creches when he suggested that they be used to counter the growing commercialization of Christmas.

Govan and his late wife, Emilia Govan, a fellow creche aficionado, looked at the varied styles of their first three Bethlehem manger scenes--an Italian Renaissance-style creche, a contemporary Portuguese piece and an abstract pottery tableau from New York state--and knew they were hooked.

"We realized we had an eye for these things," Govan recalled. The question became where to find and buy more pieces.

International travel assisted their hobby. James Govan made regular trips to Africa with his job at the U.S. Agency for International Development, where he worked for 34 years before retiring in 1998. His wife often accompanied him to African locales, and they took frequent side trips to other countries.

Soon the Govans learned of the growing number of creche collectors and societies around the world. They began reading about different Nativity traditions and sharing stories and sources with other collectors.

Before Emilia's death from cancer last year, the Govans were involved in the planning of a U.S. group, Friends of the Creche, for collectors, historians, artists and others interested in Nativity scenes.

Last month the group held its first national convention, "2001: A Creche Odyssey," with Govan as president. The event drew 160 people to Lancaster, Pa. The board Govan chairs includes Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Mormons and Presbyterians.

Govan said that the 300-member society has no intention of becoming involved in controversies that arise from time to time over the display of creches on public property.

"Our purpose, simply stated, is to stimulate a greater appreciation of the tradition of the creche, or Nativity scene," Govan said.

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