Peggy Davenport’s Christmas collection started simply enough. In a hospital gift shop, a tiny depiction of the nativity caught her fancy. Made in Italy and barely 2 inches tall, this little creche was cast in pewter and framed in blue velvet.
“I was a volunteer at the gift shop and I just fell in love with it,” Davenport said of this nativity scene that sits on a windowsill. “That must have been more than 40 years ago.”
Now, she has depictions of the nativity all over her El Dorado Hills home. These creches come in all shapes and sizes and from all over the world. Together, they show how a simple story can be interpreted in endless ways, with a little imagination and creativity.
Davenport’s many creches – along with more borrowed from family and friends – will be on display during the eighth annual Homes for the Holidays tour. Set for Dec. 9 and 10, the tour showcases homes in the Sierra foothills and has quickly become a major community event, attracting more than 1,500 patrons each year. Hosted by the Assistance League of the Sierra Foothills, the tour supports the league’s Operation School Bell and other programs. Proceeds last year helped clothe 750 needy children in El Dorado County.
For the tour, about 60 nativity scenes (not counting dozens of ornaments) decorate the Davenport home. Most are part of Peggy’s folk art-inspired collection; for this event, she recruited unusual additions from friends and family such as a 1940s nativity music box (that plays “Away in a Manger”) or a diorama with moving wise men and a soaring angel.
“We never had (a nativity scene) when we were kids,” Davenport said. “But I always thought they were fascinating.”
Several of Davenport’s prized creches stay on display year round. They’re art and not just a seasonal decoration.
“I find them beautiful and fascinating,” she said. “I’m drawn to all the different interpretations.”
Relocated from the Bay Area, Bob and Peggy Davenport moved to El Dorado Hills little more than a year ago to be closer to Peggy’s triplet sisters.
Retired, Bob shares Peggy’s passion for collecting, he said, “but I collect about 14 other things – art, antiquities, old documents. Peggy decided to focus her collecting on nativity scenes. They are interesting.”
Collected from around the globe, these creches illustrate the scope of the Christian world as well as a pivotal scene.
A mainstay of Christmas celebrations, the nativity depicts the birth of Christ. Saint Francis of Assisi gets credit for starting this tradition in 1223 in Italy. In a cave, Francis staged a living nativity with people portraying Mary, Joseph and other biblical roles. (According to Saint Bonaventure’s account, Francis used real animals, too.)
That first re-enactment was such a hit that, within a couple of generations, every Italian village had its own nativity scene. Statues replaced live actors and animals as the scenes themselves became increasingly elaborate, more evocative of Renaissance Naples than ancient Bethlehem.
In Davenport’s collection, each nativity scene reflects its maker’s background and individual spin on the night Jesus was born.
“Look at the animals,” Peggy instructed. “The artists used the animals that would be familiar to them.”
A donkey, an ox and sheep are the traditional four-footed witnesses. Often, a camel accompanies the wise men.
But on a hand-carved wooden mirror from Peru, a herd of llamas take the place of the donkey and ox. An Eskimo creche features walrus and seal next to a fur-lined manger. Elephants replace camels in a creche from Thailand.
Some creches, made by South American street artists, fit into a matchbox. Others feature characters several feet tall. Designs range from a simple stylized cutout of black sheet metal from India to an elaborate 21-piece set of Lenox porcelain.
Vintage creches from Germany and Italy create romanticized vignettes of that night in the stable. A proclamation of “Joy” was cut from recycled oil barrels in Haiti. Modern Spanish figurines depict a wiggly baby Jesus on Mary’s lap as well as a reclining Madonna, cradling her child. Japanese Kokeshi dolls and Kenyan soapstone figurines show more cultural diversity.
For the tour, the nativity scenes decorate several rooms. A guest room is home to a hand-painted porcelain creche, passed down through generations, as well as a modern glass version made of recycled glass in Guatemala.
“That’s one of my favorites just because it’s so unusual,” Peggy said of the blue glass creche.
The scope of her international collection was inspired in part by a hand-carved wooden creche from Israel that was a baptismal gift after the Davenports’ daughter was born. (It’s “on loan” for the tour.)
“When she left home, I had to get my own nativity scene,” Peggy joked. “And I just kept adding more.”
Yet at its core, the message of the nativity is universal, she noted. That’s part of what originally attracted her to this subject.
“They bring joy,” she said. “Some even use the word, ‘joy,’ as part of the scene. So, joy became my theme throughout the house. I hope other people find joy in it, too.”
Eighth annual Homes for the Holidays tour
Where: Six spectacularly decorated homes in Sierra foothills; start at William Brooks Elementary School, 3610 Park Drive, El Dorado Hills.
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. next Saturday, Dec. 9; 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. Dec. 10
Admission: $25; children age 12 and younger, $10
Also: In addition to tour, event features a free holiday boutique at Brooks School and a huge raffle of designer Christmas trees, 100-bottle instant wine collection and an Oregon getaway.