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.