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Nativity scenes from around the world find holiday home in Sonoma

Linda Goudey displays a large collection of nativity scenes at her home in Sonoma, on Wednesday, December 13, 2017. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

DIANNE REBER HART,

Every December, Linda Goudey packs up her numerous bookcases and curio cabinets to make way for a holiday tradition celebrating the birth of Jesus and the creativity and ingenuity of artists and craftspersons around the globe.

The Sonoma resident has been collecting Nativity scenes for nearly 40 years, ever since her mother gave Goudey cash as a gift for a mid-December birthday. Goudey was urged by her mother to find something special, to not spend the money “just on groceries.”

Neither woman could imagine the joy that was to come. When Goudey, now in her 70s, stopped by her (now defunct) local five-and-dime store to select her gift, she unwittingly started her treasured collection.

“I went up to the Sprouse-Reitz store and here was this darling Nativity,” she said. “It just absolutely caught me.”

She knew in an instant she’d found her perfect birthday present. She spent $11 for the Nativity with sweet-faced ceramic children, “the little faces” capturing her heart.

Goudey had no idea a single purchase would multiply every year, decade after decade. Her collection has grown to include 220 scenes, some with individual figures she carefully arranges, others single-piece settings depicting baby Jesus resting in a manger with Mary and Joseph.

“It was just one of those things,” she said. “My friends always bought me Nativity sets because they knew I liked them. They wanted the collection to grow as much as I did.”

While some Nativities are limited to the Holy Family, others include shepherd boys and sheep, farm animals, ethereal angels and the three Magi with their camels and gifts.

The religious settings display the historical Christmas story, with the birth of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. Although Goudey is Catholic and attends Mass, her collection grew more from a fascination with how various artisans depict the scene and add their cultural influences.

Her collection includes Nativities from across the globe, each one photographed and chronicled in a notebook her husband, Chuck, meticulously updates with each addition. He even included details of an anise cookie from Switzerland molded with a Nativity scene, one he confesses to eating in January 2003.

Finding a Nativity pressed into a cookie isn’t so unique. Goudey’s collection includes minuscule Nativity figures displayed within half a pistachio nutshell, detailed but requiring a magnifying glass to fully appreciate the workmanship.

“The figures are so unbelievably tiny,” she said, “but they’re all in there.”

From that most diminutive scene crafted in Ecuador, the collection climbs to the largest that stands 3 feet tall, painted on wooden fencing. Goudey’s collection ranges from whimsical to traditional, rustic to refined, colorful to monochromatic.

“It goes from very serious, respectful ones to silly ones,” she said.

Some are housed in casings, including one from France carefully placed within a leather sheath; another from Kenya is set within a gourd with detailed outer etchings and figures wound from bark.

A recent piece is from Myanmar, with tiny figures of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus and farm animals placed within a fish-shaped case carved from wood. Others are within snow globes; one is inside an ornately decorated goose egg.

About half the scenes were gifts, each one cherished by Goudey, a retired schoolteacher and caterer. Close friends and world travelers Bob and Jean Gowan are among the most generous contributors. The couple often returns from trips with an addition for the collection.

Another friend and former co-worker, Al Lunardi, also has presented Goudey with many treasured pieces. Her family adds to the collection as well. A favorite is a sleek, soft-hued, graceful glass set purchased online by Goudey’s husband.

The couple’s three children and six grandchildren have handcrafted several Nativities from materials including mixed party nuts, duct tape, nuts and bolts, fishing flies, seashells, felting, Popsicle sticks and wine corks stained from red varietals — several with craft store wiggly eyes.

“They are very clever kids,” Goudey said, “and very creative.”

What’s remarkable, she said, is the variety of materials used in making Nativity scenes, from commercial producers to one-of-a-kind sets made by hobbyists.

One set made by an elderly German woman uses a specific German beer bottle as the base for each figure, with clothing crafted from cotton and velveteen, and heads from paper-mache, their detailed faces “really wonderful.”

Another set was made from rounded wooden clothespins by a San Francisco artisan, with felt clothing and beards and staffs fashioned from pipe cleaners.

A scene from the Czech Republic was created from corn husks; others are made of pewter, sheet metal, plastic, resin, ceramic, pottery, glass and wood. One carved set from Mexico is made from bone — cattle, Goudey imagines.

There’s a scene sewn as beanbag figures, one of potholders that nest into each other, a set made from clay flowerpots turned upside down and another by Avon with rubber figures.

Some, especially those from Peru, Mexico and the American Southwest, are bright and colorful. Many are fashioned in earth tones. Soft blues and grays were used for a classic set handmade in ceramics classes by a woman who lived in Alaska, where her husband worked on the pipeline.

“It’s very special,” Goudey said. “I imagine this lady in Alaska, trying to pass the time.”

She’s paid from $1 to $300 per scene, and has one with its original 5-cent price tag. Goudey typically discovers the treasures at estate sales, crafts fairs, gift shops and even a favorite lumber store in Humboldt County, where she grew up.

She considers the time and talent that goes into each piece, sometimes paying larger amounts for smaller pieces.

Various Nativity scenes feature animals rather than people — dogs, rabbits, mice, chicken and bears among them. Snoopy and the Peanuts gang complete another set, and many showcase children’s pageants, with cherubic little faces.

Goudey’s collection includes numerous traditional Nativity scenes, like the first one she purchased as a present for her mother, given figure by figure over various holidays. Made in Italy, where the family is from Lucca, the porcelain pieces were not inexpensive.

“The faces are so detailed,” Goudey said. “Talk about beautiful. Look at that face,” she said, admiring a painstakingly crafted Mary.

Whether marked “Made in China” of inexpensive materials, or purchased during travels to exotic lands, every piece is of the highest value to the collector.

“Many of them are nice, but some of them really have personality to me,” Goudey said. She adores the smallest Nativities. “I like little things. I love my little, tiny ones.”

Despite taking weeks to pack up her books and mementos, then unpack and display her Nativities, and then pack and unpack everything once again, the Christmas display is worth every effort to Goudey.

She loves hosting friends and neighbors for tea and cookies and an opportunity to share her collection.

Goudey is hopeful the more lighthearted Nativities — like her children’s fishing flies “Gnat-ivity” and the mixed nuts “Nut-ivity” — don’t offend anyone. Each was crafted in good faith and joyful celebration, she said, if not with a sense of humor.

From the Nativity with fuzzy pastel flocking she purchased in Montreal while on tour with the Sonoma Valley Chorale, to the Sprouse-Reitz Nativity that started her collection, each is a snapshot of travels, outings, family members, friends and celebrations.

“It’s the pure enjoyment of it,” Goudey said, “and how they’ve gotten depicted in so many ways.”

Contact Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at sonomatowns@gmail.com