The wise men sport long, scruffy beards, tight goatees, fu manchus or are clean-shaven. Their skin is black, white or somewhere in between. Sometimes the wise people are, well, women.
Mary's hair may be long Scandinavian tresses or twisted into African corn-rows. She is stick thin or revealing the bulging belly of a new mom.
There are winged angels and cooing doves, coyotes and horses, or donkeys and dogsleds. They can all fit in a walnut or be larger than life. Occasionally, Baby Jesus has dreadlocks.
Christianity's holy family is, after all, a story that resonates in every culture, which is why it is a popular theme in folk art and helps explain the growing popularity of interfaith creche exhibits. "This is a coming together of many churches celebrating a common vision of Christ," says Holly Zenger of Midway, who has collected nativity scenes for nearly 20 years. "It's a great way to start the Christmas season. No Santa Claus in sight."
Last year a group of nativity collectors launched a national organization called "Friends of the Creche," which held its first meeting two weeks ago in Lancaster, Penn.
One room, called "Bethlehem Village," is dedicated to the work of Italy's House of Fontanini and showcases 5 1/2 inch figures of Roman soldiers, children and shopkeepers amid numerous buildings, rocks, fences and gates while amazed onlooker point to the sky. St. Lawrence Catholic Church of Heber loaned the exhibit their collection of 20 inch Fontanini figures, which will be on display in the European section.
Elsewhere, there are Native American figures offering sheep dogs, turkeys, turquoise, corn maise and a sacred feather as gifts to the baby Jesus. An Alaskan creche features a baby on a dog sled; the wise men present him with whale blubber, seals oil and a chinook salmon - - offering, like kings of other cultures, their most precious gifts.
Angels can be found floating in the sky, sitting in palm trees or hovering near the baby. They play harps, trumpets, mandolins, accordions and cymbals. Sometimes their mouths are permanently rounded, sounding a heavenly note.
One creche was made by Palestinian refugees. Its figures wear traditional, colorful headscarves.
Zenger has personally collected more than 500 creches, many on display at the Midway exhibit. "When I buy a piece, I look for something unique that reflect a particular culture," she says.
Creche scenes are also excellent teaching tools, says Dan John, director of religious education for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.
Children can learn about the "wise men," who were really Babylonian astrologers or astronomers who spent their time scanning the skies. They expected to see a king, not a baby, John says.
Shepherds, from Cain and Abel to Abraham, Isaac, David and Amos, also figured prominently in the Bible, he says. "When the shepherds show up at the manger, it's a hats off to the Old Testament."
Traditionally, Catholics do not put the Baby Jesus in the manger until Christmas Eve.
"I can remember my mom being angry because you couldn't remove the baby out of the manger in creches from stores like J.C. Penny's," says John. "They were glued in."
The manger is a particularly potent symbol to Catholics, he says. "We are told that the first moment of Jesus' life he was put into something that provides food."
When Catholics receive the Eucharist, John says, they believe Christ becomes "food for us."
Putting the baby in the manger, says John, "is one of those cool Eucharistic moments."