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One of my first Christmases after moving to Washington, D.C., I visited the National Cathedral. An Episcopal church of neo-Gothic design, it’s the second-largest church building in the country and one of the tallest structures in D.C. I was expecting only to tour the beautiful cathedral and see the city from its observation tower. What I didn’t realize is that one of its little-known holiday features is a display of Christmas nativities from around the world!
The Start of My Collection
Although I’m not religious, I love the holiday season. Mulled wine, silver tinsel trees, scary retro Santas: I love every part of Christmas, the shinier and gaudier the better. Which is funny, because my favorite Christmas nativity up to that point was the simple white porcelain set my mother had displayed since I was a child.
But this was different: so many countries of the world, each interpreting the same story through their own culture and native materials. Felted wool, carved wood, corn husks, metal, stone, terracotta and more. Some of the handmade nativity sets were intricate or ornate, and others very simple. The figures usually represented local ethnicities. I pored over the exhibit of world nativities for hours.
I decided then and there that I needed my own collection of Christmas nativity scenes from different countries. So in my travels, I have sought them out in local shops and markets. It’s easier to find them in countries where Christianity is the predominant religion, of course. And it helps if you’re traveling during the holiday season. But that hasn’t stopped me from trying in every country I visit. I was even able to find one in Kyrgyzstan! Made from felted wool, it’s only the Holy Family, with a round wool yurt to store the pieces in. The little dolls are so sweet that it might be my favorite.
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My Nativities From Around the World
Ukraine Nesting Nativity Set
In Ukraine, their matryoshka (nesting dolls) are each different, compared to Russian matryoshkas which are successively smaller dolls. Ukrainian matryoshkas tell a story, with each size showing different scenes or characters, so I was really excited to find one of the Christmas story at a local market. It’s one of my most unique world nativity scenes!
Guatemala Nativity Sets
I was able to find a few nativities when I visited Guatemala, all made from different materials. The nativity of large carved and painted wooden statues is one of my favorites!
Mexico Nativity Sets
In Mexico I found what I like to call a “portmanteau gift”: one souvenir that combines two things you really really like! I bought two similar Mexican nativity sets – one each for me and my sister – since we both love nativities and Day of the Dead. I also found the cutest church nativity – check it out below!
When I finally got to visit Oaxaca, Mexico for Day of the Dead, I found a cool tin nativity scene that folds flat! Which was perfect, because I really had no extra room in my luggage on that trip.
In Mexico City, I checked out local markets to find another nativity to add to my collection. La Ciudadela is an entire market of artisanal handicrafts where I found lots of nativities in shops there (possibly because I visited at the end of November, but it looked like they display them year-round). I selected on made in a Huichol style, decorated with meticulously-placed seed beads. The Huichol are an indigenous people who live in the states of Jalisco, Durango, Zacatecas and Nayarit in Mexico. The Huichol have a long history of beading with beads made from clay, shells, corals, and seeds, as well as yarn paintings.
In Peru I went a little crazy and bought almost every nativity I saw. Maybe it was euphoria from surviving the Inca Trail hike, maybe it was altitude sickness. I just kept finding cuter ones. How adorbs is the little llama shepherd Holy Family nativity? Peru was definitely my best destination for adding to my collection of nativity sets from different cultures and countries!
In Belize, I scoured shops for nativity sets but didn’t find any until I got back to the airport in Belize City. Then I found this cute clay ornament and another tiny nativity with a hidden itsy-bitsy family inside.
Nativities from Colombia
I was lucky to visit Colombia in December this year and saw many nativity sets at souvenir shops! Most of them were the same in the different cities I visited. I ended up choosing two – one from the Salt Cathedral at Zipaquira, and another from a shop at the airport – because they were unique.
Portugal Nativity Sets
Portugal was another country where it was difficult to decide which nativity to choose! I found several I liked, but eventually settled on two. The first is made of cork. If you’ve visited Portugal, you’ll know why I chose this one: cork is one of Portugal’s biggest products! They produce more than 50% of the world’s supply. You can find it in everything from shoes to purses to actual wine corks. And also nativity sets! This one has a small family made from clay inside a ring of cork.
In Portugal, you can also find many nativity sets made from porcelain and clay as well as other materials. I fell for this little brightly colored one when I saw it in a shop window. I especially like it because all the figures look like they’re singing.
In the city of Evora, Portugal, the city’s museum center at the St. Francis Church (Igreja de São Francisco) also has an exhibit of nearly 500 nativities. It’s the private collection of the Canha de Silva family. I’ll be featuring the collection in upcoming posts on my Portugal trip!
Czech Republic Nativity
I was lucky to visit the Czech Republic before Christmas, when their holiday markets were in full swing. Czech is known for its nativities made by master craftsmen, but I had a hard time finding any in souvenir shops! (I found many ornaments though.) I ended up choosing this simple nativity in a large seed pod from one of the markets.
I cheated a little on this world nativity – it’s actually a gift my mother brought me this year from her first solo trip to Italy. It’s only about two inches high, but I just love the smooth carved olive wood and embracing figures!
Are you ready for my favorite world nativity? The nativity from Kyrgyzstan is so cute it makes me squeal. Made from felted wool, it’s the three dolls of the Holy Family, with a yurt to store them in. A tag inside listed the artisan’s name as part of a fair trade women’s cooperative.
National Cathedral Exhibit
If you’d like to see the National Cathedral’s exhibit of world nativity sets, it begins each year around the end of November. The exhibit changes each year, as only 80 are on display from the collection of 800. Get more information on their holiday season to plan a visit!
Starting Your Own Collection
If you’d like to start your own collection of nativities from around the world, or if you’re looking to buy them as gifts, I recommend asking sellers in local markets during your travels. Ask at your hotel for help in translating “nativity” if you don’t speak the local language or won’t have a guide. Sometimes market sellers know what other shops have, and are willing to bring it to you. (I assume the other seller gives them a percentage!) Or to jump-start your own collection, here are a few online retailers that offer world nativities:
- LDS Living
- Or check Etsy – I’ve had my eye on this gorgeous felted wool set from Israel for a while!
I’ve even been able to find some international sellers on Amazon that offer nativities from around the world.
What do you collect from your travels? If you have questions about my collection, or if I’ve inspired you to collect nativities from around the world, feel free to leave a comment or message me!
Pin my souvenir world nativities for later!
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