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Judy Davis’ ”Friends Of The Crèche Guide to Permanent Nativity Displays“

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Judy Davis — friend, art lover, collector, world traveler, and bibliographer, former Vice President of Friends Of The Crèche — talks about the Guide to Permanent Nativity Displays — In the U.S. and Around the World, and the organization she loves: the Friends Of The Crèche…

Judy Davis' crèche collection includes this bright aluminum-foil extravaganza from Poland (above, left). Bob and Judy, in the Czech Republic, visiting nativities during a Friends Of The Crèche International Convention. (Photo, above right, courtesy Judy Davis.)
Judy's first nativity, purchased at the Bazaar Sabado (Saturday Bazaar) in Mexico City, in 1966, features two little angels suspended on candles. (Photo courtesy Judy Davis.) 
"Are you inundated with snow? It's just lovely here today: bright, sunny, in the high 70s. Having grown up in Chicago, I have a certain appreciation for California."

Judy Davis is talking me to me on the phone from her home overlooking San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, but, for once, I can smile:my temperature beats hers: it's a balmy 81 degrees in Miami Beach, where I'm doing a photo shoot.

It was delightful meeting Judy and her husband Bob when I visited them in California, (see, Judy Davis — A San Franscisco Bay area Collector and Friends of the Creche Vice President) and it's always a pleasure hearing from her.

How are you, Alexis? Has it really been five years since you were here? I hope all is going well for you. Crèchemania seems to be thriving, and I enjoy all your postings, articles, and stories.

I've just noticed your Nativity Guide, and I wanted to tell you that since the inception of Friends of the Crèche, I have written for them a Guide to Permanent Nativity Displays — In the U.S. and Around the World.

I wondered if you'd like to recommend the online version of the FOTC Guide to Permanent Nativity Displays to Crèchemania's and the Crèche Guild's nativity enthusiasts who have an interest in seeing Nativity displays on their trips.

By the way, the information on the FOTC site was just updated.

Recommend? The least I could do was devote a blog to Judy's Guide, for she was responsible for my exciting journey to the Czech Republic and my friendship with all the wonderful Czech collectors like Milan Zábranský, and Svatava Vizinová, to mention just two.

So, here I am, sipping ice tea at under the palms on Ocean Drive, happy to be hearing Judy's voice after all these years.

"I'm so glad to have this chance to chat with you, Alexis."

How did your Guide begin?

"When the Friends Of The Crèche were organized in 2000, one of the things they wanted was a Bibliography. I jumped on that, and came up with as full a bibliography as I could make.

"Then, somehow, that led to the Guide to Permanent Nativity Displays. I don't exactly recall how it came about. I remember the Bibliography, but not the Guide. So the first Guide was in 2000, and had, let's see, probably 63 entries. Now we have just under 200."

I've been adding a entries to the Crèchemania Nativity Guide myself. Do you also visit the places you list?

"Not always. I have visited maybe more than one-third of the sites in the United States and overseas. Other people, who visit crèche collections let me know. For example, a lot of the entries in the Czech Republic have come from Milan Zábranský.And some entries come from the Internet. But I always try to talk to people or email them, to make sure our information is up to date and that the collection really does exist.

"Because I find is that some of these nativity "museum" collections are a private business. We were in French a couple of years ago, and we tried to see such a collection — but it had moved to the south of the country. I have found a few more collections that have been sold and been moved.

"Bob and I love to visit crèche collections. We visited several museums in the Czech Republic, and one, because of Milan, they opened just for me. You've been there, you know what it's like: unique people, who don't speak English, and with whom you may not be able to speak…

But you communicate…

"Yes. It's such a unique experience, nontheless. Because, if you have the same interest, language does not matter.

"Some of the listings come from people who visit nativity installations and write or call. Just now, I'm in communication with a woman who does the Dutch Friends Of The Crèche Guide. Europeans travel a lot more, because they're closer. My Dutch friend keeps me up-to-date on the things collections she visits. She sends me her Guide and updates, and I send her mine."

And your focus is 3-dimensional crèches?

"Yes, the Guide is strictly about nativity sets museums. I do have a couple of churches I have included, just because there is a museum in the town, but there are so many churches, as you know, and so many church nativities that I can't really have them all in my Guide. So I don't list churches, primarily, although there are a few churches in the Guide."

What attracted you to this crèche quest?

"Bob and I love to travel, just as you do, and, like you, we like to drive, and we're always driving from one place to another. Or, we'll rent a car once we fly there. But you never know what you're going to find: once, we visited a "museum" that I no longer list in the Guide. You had to walk through with a flash light, it was so dark! And dank, semi-wet, and the proprietor kept talking about the pack rats that were stealing all the baby Jesus! So I took that entry out."

How did you begin collecting?

"My interest in the Crèche started as an adult. Never having had a nativity under the tree, (my mother's church was very fundamental), I decided to buy one in Mexico. I wanted to have a nativity to put under the tree, to have a representation of the Birth of Christ at Christmastime. It was a folk-art nativity [shown at left, above], and it was 1966 when it all began. Now I have over 500! And 98 are on display year-round.

Bob Davis in his woodworking shop, cutting out the figures of a colorful Czech crèche given to the U.S. Friends of the Crèche by their Czech counterparts. You see just a sampling of the folk-art creche figures in the foreground — you could say Bob has his work cut-out for him! 
Tell me more about Friends of The Crèche, the organization you've served as Vice President for a number of years.

"Rita Bocher is credited with having the idea of gathering people together. She runs The Crèche Herald, and thought there might be interest in founding an organization. So she talked to Father Johann G. Roten, former Director of The Marian Library-International Research Institute, University of Dayton, Ohio, and there was a meeting in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in late 1999. Then, in 2000, there was a meeting in Dayton, which I attended. I then served six years as Vice President. Jim Govan, whom you know, was President for nine years.

"The Friends Of The Crèche are members of the international organization of nativity groups from around the world, headquartered in Rome. We just celebrated its 10th anninversary, and we are still going strong. New members receive my printed Guide and Bibliography, along with a subscription to The Crèche Herald. We have between 400 and 500 members, many of whom participate in our conventions and annual meetings."

And your focus is 3-dimensional nativities? I have the Anri Bachlechner Nativity, and my friend Celso Rosa, just as soon as his workload eases, has promised to blog about his 3-dimensional nativity collection and the wonderful diorama settings he creates.

"Yes, 3-dimensional crèches remains our focus, but we do have people who collect paper nativities. I can remember, at our first convention, a man with a paper nativity display. We have had paper nativities on display, but I don't really recall any talk or presentation about paper nativities. That's why we'd love to have you come and give one, Alexis!"

Is there a crèche collection that especially stands out in your mind?

"There are the Czech mechanical wonders, but I think the Czech museum nativities are astounding. Huge displays of paper nativities! Those are the ones that really stand out: paper cut-outs, supported by wire or small wood dowels, and arranged in huge dioramas with small trees and other vegetation. When I first saw them, I was just astounded: they were beautiful, and large — and so unexpected.

"Some are large, some small, some move, some do not. You do see some beautiful nativities around the world. I remember nativities from other places, of course, because they're all so different. "

What makes them so?

"I attribute to to the local culture. And that's why I like what I call, "folk-art nativities," the best. Because, so many of them give you an idea of how the local people in any given place view their region. Mary and Joseph, the Wise Men, the shephdrds, often are clad in local garb, dressed as local people. From Alaska, I have a nativity with Jesus in a little sleigh, and with all kinds of different animals. I have a Southwestern nativity that has a buffalo at the manger. Folk nativities are all about the artist's culture, individual interpretations of the artist and his environment — and that's why they look so different.

Friends Of The Crèche International Convention, November 10-12, 2011, Toronto

Tell us about the FOTC conventions.

"There's a convention coming up in Toronto, November 10-12, 2011. Nancy Mallett, our wonderful Convention Chair is the archivist of the Museum of St. Jame's Church and she's traveled all over the world. She was just in Nuremberg, Cologne, and Dresden, researching the history of the crèche during World War II. What happened to the crèches? Did they put them in the caves underneath Nuremberg? It looks like they did!

"In fact, there's going to be a great presentation on this subject, 'The Crèche in Time of War.' Museum Specialist Catherine Woltz will present the results of her recent research into how thsustain people in wartime.

"I expect the convention is really going to be super this year. A lot of our people know of your site, and visit Crèchemania. And yet, somehow, I feel that Crèchemania's Crèche Guild and the Friends Of The Crèche somehow haven't connected. We'd like you to be a speaker sometime, Alexis. But I know, you're very busy."

I'd love to do it, Judy! Maybe after I retire? (Smile.) My schedule gets pretty crazy sometimes. For example, last summer I travelled to Tallinn, Estonia, for a two week shoot, and my trip turned into a marathon with stops in St. Petersburg, Prague, South Bohemia, Berlin, Athens — and Constantinople (Istanbul). I was gone for over two-and-a-half months! So, I'm just a bit hesitant of making a commitment to you that, for all the world, I would not wish to break.

No crèche aficionado should miss the Friends Of The Crèche 2011 International Convention in Toronto. 
"Maybe you can make it to Toronto?

"We gathered in 2000, and in 2001 we decided to have our first convention. (We hold one every-other-year.) They begin on Friday morning, run for two-and-a-half days, and include local tours. Let me describe the upcoming convention in Toronto for you: there's a special pre-convention trip to the Huron Villages, something I have always wanted to do. The Jesuit missionaries used the crèche to teach the Hurons about Christianity.

"And there are always well-known convention speakers. In Toronto, Dr. Janet Ritch, Professor of History at York University and French at the Toronto School of Theology; Bishop Mark MacDonald, the first National Indigenous Bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada; Reverend Dr. Canon Alan Hayes, Professor of Church History, Widcliffe College, University of Toronto, Author, and Director of the Toronto School of Theology will address, 'Dawn of the Global Age: The Crèche in Early Canada.'

"Dr. Ross Fair, Adjunct Professor, Department of History, Ryerson University, will lead the session, 'Canada's Diversity and the Crèche.' While Margaret Dvorsky and Yosola Sholagbade-Adeoye will share traditions brought from Slovakia and Nigeria respectively.

"Dr. Alexandra Johnston, Professor of English, University of Toronto, will present, 'The Dramatized Crèche: The Medieval Tradition of Biblical Drama.'

"The Poculi Ludique Societas will perform three episodes from the Chester plays, including Herod and the Wisemen, The Adoration of the Wisemen, and The Slaughter of the Innocents and Death of Herod.

"A team of presenters will tell 'The Story of Riviére-Éternité — Créches of French Canada,' about a tiny village known as the Bethlehem of Quebec.

"Ian McGregor, Head Science Teacher, Royal Ontario Museum, will present 'The Christmas Star — Astronomy, History, and Legend.'

"There are more wonderful presentations: 'The Crèche in Icons,' with Corey Keeble, Curator, Department of World Cultures, Royal Ontario Museum, and Alexei Mezentsev, Artist, Educator, and Iconographer, and Dr. Helene Moussa, Curator, St. Mark's Coptic Museum.

"And here's a topic dear to your hear, Alexis: 'The Crèche in Toronto's Stained Glass Windows,' with the Reverend Dr. John Joseph Mastandrea, Minister of Spiritual Growth and Pastoral Care Development, Metropolitan United Church.

"There's more: 'Mary — Stories and Legends,' with gifted storyteller Jerome Brown; 'Journey's of the Nativity,' various celebrations inspired by the journeys of the Holy Family, presented by Reverend Father Gustavo Campo, Associate Priest of St. Augustine of Canterbury Roman Catholic Church, and Dr. Ramez Boutros, Architect and Archeologist, and Visiting Professor, University of Toronto.

"And I mustn't forget to mention 'Displaying, Animating, and Caring for your Crèche,' with Collector Melanie Egan and visual artist Carol Knowlton-Dority."

We will have two days of almost non-stop presentations; there's always a sales area where commercial vendors come in to sell; we have an auction; but it's mostly presentations. We're looking forward to having about 300 attendees."

I'm not sure about Toronto; what about San Francisco?

"I'm sorry we'll miss you. Bob and I will be on cruise to Costa Rica and Panama, through the Canal. We have never been to either place and are looking forward to the experience. As we visit churches, because of you, I'll have to be more mindful of 'alternate' forms of the Nativity instead of simply looking for Nativity scene displays for the Guide. Many churches often have a set out all year, but unless it is special, I usually don't list it.

"By the way, when you're in San Francisco, you've got to visit the Grace Cathedral — the Episcopal Cathedral — it has a nativity set made in Spain.

"And there's a new Cathedral in Oakland that everyone is raving about, but we haven't visited, so I can't tell you what they might have in terms of The Nativity. And surely, the Catholic Cathedral will have something?"

Thanks, Judy! My search of The Nativity has been a wonderful journey, and it's been a pleasure having you and Bob be a part of it.

"Thank you, Alexis. I'm so happy for you, your Web site, and all your enthusiasm.

You'll find Judy Davis' Guide to Permanent Nativity Displays on the Friends of the Crèche Web site. Email Friends Of The Créche for membership information; For information on the Toronto November 10-12, 2011 FOTC Convention contact, Chair, Friends of the Crèche International Convention: Nancy Mallett, Chair, Archives and Museum Committee, St. James’ Cathedral, (416) 354-7865.

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