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Showing off the reason for the season

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By The Staff

The Los Alamos Crèche Show began as a small but creative idea launched by the chairman of one committee at one local church.

When the 16th annual Crèche Show was held at the Los Alamos Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, this year however, the show was an established success.

Gail and Roy Capshaw, the husband and wife team who chaired the show this year, said it drew 300 exhibitors. The nativity sets exhibited came from 44 countries. A record 600 people came to see the show. And people from churches all over town were involved.

Fed by the travels and collections of scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and missionaries and members from many local churches, the show had developed a level of quality usually achieved only in larger cities. Once the show opened on Dec. 4, a steady stream of visitors flowed in for two days to enjoy a truly international display.

Members of the LDS church provided a display space in their Cultural Hall and set up the nativity scenes, labeling each with its country of origin, the name of the person displaying the set, and, in some cases, a little information about how it came to be in Los Alamos.

Large, scarlet poinsettias decorated the room and classical Christmas music played softly in the background. On the first afternoon of the two-day show, Thomas and Catherine Crotzer provided a live violin duet.

Women from the LDS church served as hostesses, greeting visitors and inviting them to enjoy two tables filled with cookies, cakes, vegetables, chips, dips and juices that were constantly renewed.

There was a special room where children could enjoy touching Crèches set up just for them.

Clearly, the show — a faithful and graceful gift from the LDS church — had been adopted by the entire community as a valued Christmas experience. The Crèche Show had become, in fact, an ongoing part of the history of Los Alamos.

Origins of the Show

Alice Mann founded the Los Alamos Crèche Show. She recalled that it all started “when I was Relief Society president for women in our (LDS) church” in 1994. “I read my handbook and it said to have two events per year — one nice dinner and one event for the public.”

As she considered possibilities for the “event for the public,” she thought about friends in town who collected nativity scenes (Crèches). “I had never been to a Crèche show,” she said, but one of her daughters, Jocelyn, lived in Washington, D.C. and had attended Crèche shows there. One Washington show, held for six weeks each winter, always displayed approximately 100 carefully chosen Crèches from several different countries.

Alice also benefited from trips she made to California every year from 1990 to 2000 to help her other daughter, Jacoi, decorate a five-star hotel in San  Diego for the holiday season.

She folded ideas from all of these experiences into the first Los Alamos Crèche Show.

Carol Neal and Wendy Hauer served as her counselors and Jerilynn Christiansen, then chairwoman of the LDS Visiting-Teaching Committee, chaired the first few shows when Alice was in San Diego.

“In 2000,” Alice said with a smile, “I decided I wasn’t going to climb 35-foot ladders (in San Diego) any more.” Instead, she decided to spend her time at the Crèche show.

The show was always held the first weekend of December at the LDS church, she said. When the community began holding Winterfest, the show fit in well at the beginning of the holiday celebration.

“It’s a gift to the community,” Alice said. The show was also meant as a way of “keeping Christ in Christmas, which is getting more difficult.”

Stories of Family and Overseas Travel

Over the years, Alice has done considerable research on Crèche shows. Bring up the subject of nativity scenes and she’s likely to pull out one of several old photo albums of shows held in Los Alamos in past years, and whole books on larger shows throughout the world.

She also remembers, by name, many exhibitors from past years and she can provide fascinating details about the shows and the individual nativity scenes displayed.

She said that the first Los Alamos Crèche Show included approximately 150 Crèches. Then, as now, the church provided “finger food, juice and hostessing.”

Alice and her husband, Lawry (a former long-time staff member at LANL and a former member of the Los Alamos County Utilities Board and the County Council), visited Russia in 1994 and discovered that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians had begun making religious art again.

Subsequently, the Manns and then-LANL Director Sig Hecker and his wife, Nina, were among several couples that brought back and displayed interesting Russian nativity scenes.

Doris Jackson, Alice said, is one of a handful of people who have exhibited every year since the show started. She’s Methodist.

Jean Lyman and Connie Gartz are among LDS members who have exhibited Crèches from many exotic places where their family members have been missionaries.

Virginia Stoval, the oldest member of the United Church, once exhibited a Crèche made of olive wood from the Holy Land.

Ginger Welch, a longtime Los Alamos nurse who also served on the County Council before moving away, once brought a Crèche in a quail-egg shell from Costa Rica.

Geneah Rickman lost her pottery Crèche when her home burned during the Cerro Grande Fire, but afterward, her son, Jim, found one little donkey that had survived the flames. Alice said that a friend subsequently gave Geneah a set made by the same craftsman who had created the set that burned. The Rickmans often display their crèche — complete with the little donkey, stained gray by the fire.

Alice loves the handmade Crèches brought in by children. “I think they’re very special,” she said.

Setting Up

The 2009 show was, in some ways, typical. Many experienced exhibitors brought their Crèches to the church early on Friday morning and people from the LDS congregation were there to help display them.

Alice Mann was there, unpacking boxes.

Doris Jackson had set up several Crèches and was standing back, taking photos of a stitchery Crèche by the late Jan Collins of Los Alamos. Doris said she was working on a book that would include photos of all of her Crèches. It will be “mainly for family,” she said. Asked what first attracted her to the show, Doris said she was invited to exhibit “by my friend Alice Mann.”

Doris has a large collection —“probably 85 to 90” crèches — but she only displays a few each year. They come from many countries and are made from many materials. She mentioned sets created from corn husks, bread dough, and elk antlers and she spoke of one created by quilling (the use of narrow strips of paper rolled into spirals). This year, in addition to the stitchery Crèche, she was exhibiting a small, finely made Crèche from Poland that a friend had given her.

Across the room, a Crèche displayed by Timothy and Elizabeth Johnson of the United Church featured figurines posed in a stable designed by Tim and made of pine bark.

On the stage at one end of the room stood a complete, colorful Crèche made of stuffed fabric figures 20 to 21 inches high. The display even included trees and a friendly cow. Nina Epperson, an LDS member, made the set especially for this stage.

Rita Bowman, a member of the Imaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church, had set up a crewel embroidery manger scene. She said she spent 10 years working on it. It showed Bethlehem on a hill in the distance and a road down to a stable, where wise men and shepherds adored the infant Christ. From 10 feet away, this fine piece of needlework art looked like a classical painting.

Jerilyn Christiansen was carefully positioning a small, beautiful picture-framed nativity scene that featured tiny gold figures on a black velvet background. She said that the figures were pins given to her as presents, but that she had decided to display them as a Crèche.

Nerses “Krik” Krikorian, a Manhattan Project scientist who won the Los Alamos Medal in 2004, was coming in the door as we left. Krik, a longtime participant in the United Church, had a large box in his hands.

The 2009 Show

On Friday, with the show open and in progress, there were many, many more items in the room.

Rep. Jeannette Wallace had displayed a Crèche featuring American Indian children.

Lorraine Hartway, a local businesswoman, had several Crèches on display including sets from Mexico made of corn husks, sets from Russia and a French nativity of ceramic figures in fabric clothing.

There was an astonishingly detailed and beautiful white scherenshnitte (cut paper) nativity.

The Manns had displayed sets ranging from a “Peanuts” Crèche to a very high tech, rotating glass cube that produced images that looked like holograms.

Across the aisle, there was a set from Ecuador made from vegetable ivory tagua nuts.

Near the front of the room, the Krikorian family’s large, lovely ceramic set, a gift from Krik’s sister, was now out of the box and on display for all to enjoy.

Krik was born by the side of the road as his parents fled Turkey. The family struggled through Syria, Greece, France and Canada before immigrating to the United States in 1925. Despite their hardships, in 1943, Krik earned a bachelor of science degree in chemistry (with honors). Later that year, he joined the Manhattan Project. His scientific work from that day on has been highly praised.

Those who come to the Crèche Show are walking in the footsteps of hundreds of people who have exhibited and enjoyed Los Alamos Crèches in the past. The show has been and will continue to be, an expression of the travels, cultural collections and deeply held beliefs of very special people in a unique community — a city that is now more than 60 years old.