All Nature of Nativities


It might be in the running for the world's smallest nativity scene: a speckled bird's egg, not much bigger than the tip of your thumb, which holds the tiny figures of Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus.

But it's no more remarkable than the intricately carved clay figures of the holy family nestled in a manger of sticks--handcrafted by a blind artist in Washington.

Both are among about 600 nativity scenes on display this weekend in Thousand Oaks. The three-day exhibit, a benefit for homeless shelters in the county, is aptly called "No Room at the Inn."

The display opens Friday at St. Paschal Baylon Hall, 155 E. Janss Road, with a gala from 6:30 to 9 p.m., which includes entertainment and hors d'oeuvres--all for a $12.50 donation. The Camarillo United Methodist Handbell Quartet and Flutes Unlimited will perform.

For a no-frills look at the nativity scenes, viewers can stop by Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. The charge then is $3 for adults, $1 for children.

In its fourth year, "No Room at the Inn" is the brainchild of two women who share an inexhaustible passion for collecting creches; Judy Crenshaw owns 152, while Nora Howells trails with 100.

"They're all in crates in the attic," said Crenshaw, a Camarillo kindergarten teacher. They represent 19 years of collecting, much of it while her husband served in the Navy in different countries. It started during a trip to Denmark.


Howells, a sixth-grade teacher living in Thousand Oaks, owes her collecting zeal to her husband, Huw Howells, who died in 1993. Their anniversary was Dec. 26, and it became a tradition early on to shop for a nativity scene that day.

"We didn't realize we were collectors for a number of years," Howells said.

At a Christmas party five years ago, Crenshaw and Huw Howells came up with the idea of displaying their collections so others could see them. In the spirit of Christmas, why not help the homeless too, they thought. Since Jesus was homeless that first Christmas, Huw Howells coined the name "No Room at the Inn."

Huw Howells died of colon cancer before the idea blossomed. But his wife decided to carry it out and she enlisted Crenshaw's help. It would be a memorial to her husband.

For the first show in 1993, the two women pooled their creches and invited others to display theirs. Some 900 people showed up to see 320 manger scenes, and about $5,000 went to the homeless shelters.

Last year the exhibit, organized now by a committee of 32, had grown to 600 creches. Twelve Christmas trees held more than 100 angel ornaments. Viewers donated $6,000 to the homeless.

"It's a wonderful way to celebrate Christmas--reaching out to those who [have found] no room at the inn," Howells said.


People come away from the display with a more genuine feeling about the holiday, the women said. "They say thank you for sharing the true meaning of Christmas, rather than the glitz, the Santas," Crenshaw said.

The nativity scene tradition with the holy family, kings, shepherds and animals, dates back to 13th-century Italy. St. Francis of Assisi is often credited with popularizing the manger scenes set in the Bethlehem stable. It's still a worldwide tradition, something you can't miss at the exhibit.

"Six hundred nativities, and each one has its own story," Crenshaw said. There is the one loaned by an elderly woman who crocheted it after she was first married because she couldn't afford a store-bought one. Another is a simple papier mache scene purchased for 10 cents at the dime store a lifetime ago.

"The incredible thing is that there are very few duplications," she said. They come in all shapes and sizes, some made from odd materials like driftwood, marbles, walnut shells, seed pods--even chocolate. Those from other countries reflect the culture--from the bright fabrics of Guatemala to the bamboo of Taiwan. Native American scenes are set in a tepee or a pueblo.


Although the scenes on display are hands-off for children, a table will be set up where children can play with less fragile creches and do some craft activities.

For Crenshaw and Howells, the exhibit is a chance to haul out their own vast collections, which are constantly growing. Howells picked up one nativity on a recent trip to Egypt. It's a picture on parchment of Mary and Jesus on horseback, led by Joseph. The setting is along the Nile River with lotus flowers, date palms and pyramids in the background.

But one nativity scene that especially touches her is the one she got last summer during a trip to Wales, the birthplace of her husband of 33 years. The intricately molded figures are jet black, made of coal.

When he died, he didn't know that she would carry out his dream. "He knows now," she said. "His spirit is there."



* WHAT: "No Room at the Inn," a display of nativity scenes.

* WHERE: St. Paschal Baylon Hall, 155 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks.

* WHEN: Opening gala 6:30-9 p.m. Friday; and more viewing 10 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

* HOW MUCH: $12.50 for Friday gala; $3 for adults, $1 for children on Saturday and Sunday.

* CALL: 492-9420 or 484-2184.

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