It was when she was a college junior studying in France for a semester abroad program that Sydne Yanko-Jongbloed first saw Santons, the handmade terracotta nativity figures that depict everyday life in a traditional Provencal village. Intrigued and delighted with the details and the colors of the small figures, she purchased a set to take home with her.
She also started a lifelong interest in creches, including their symbolism and their artistry. Today, the Rancho Palos Verdes, California, resident serves as president of the Friends of the Creche, a non-profit organization that promotes the tradition of the creche.
The origins of Friends of the Creche date to December 1999, when Rita Bocher convened a small group of creche enthusiasts at the Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and considered the establishing a creche organization. The following year, sixteen charter members gathered for an organizational meeting at the University of Dayton in Ohio, which holds one of the most extensive Christmas manger collections in the United States.
Today the organization has about 300 members, including men and women from across the U.S. and some of Canada who share an interest in creches. Many, like Yanko-Jongbloed, are collectors who enjoy meeting other people who share the same interest and who enjoy learning more about the history and tradition of nativity scenes.
The all-volunteer group has business meetings each year and conventions every other year that offer exhibits and a chance to learn and to share knowledge, research, and creativity in the creche tradition.
An International Endeavor
Recently, Yanko-Jongbloed was preparing to leave for Bergamo, Italy, where she will represent Friends of the Creche at the meeting of Universalis Foederatio Praesepistica, an international organization of creche associations. While they are in Europe for the conference, Yanko-Jongbloed and her husband, Peter, plan to visit Provence where she hopes to purchase a new figure or two created by artist Roger Jouve to add to her collection of his Santons.
“The figures in the local shops are cast in clay and painted,” she says, adding that local families frequently purchase a new Santon each year to add to their nativity scene. “Since I did not know I would ever be returning to France, I went home with a large set,” she admits, adding with a laugh. “I guess you could say I did it the American way,”
Yanko-Jongbloed, who estimates that she has about 20 nativities in her collection, says it is a sense of belonging that attracted her to Friends of the Creche. “We are a unique organization,” she says. “It is very interesting to meet others who share the same interest, and it is fascinating to see what they do.”
A member of Friends of the Creche since 2007, Yanko-Jongbloed first heard about the nonprofit from a co-worker at Mary and Joseph Retreat Center in Rancho Palos Verdes, where she serves as conference coordinator. “I didn’t really consider myself a nativity collector at that time,” she recalls, “but I enjoy learning new things, and it was just the right time in my life to get involved in something like this.”
Soon she and her husband attended their first Friends of the Creche convention, held that year in Dublin, Ohio. She says that many spouses attend the conventions and are welcome to attend the sessions or not as they choose.
Members come from different walks of life and include scholars, authors, exhibitors, and artists in addition to collectors. Yanko-Jongbloed explains that some members are more interested in the spiritual aspects of the nativity figures, while others are more interested in the artistic aspect of the figures.
Some Friends of the Creche members have literally thousands of creches in their collections—Yanko-Jongbloed knows someone who has 3,000—while others have only one or two beloved sets that they add to each year. Some people enjoy ordering creches from online sites, she says, while others scour flea markets and thrift stores for unusual creches that were probably once part of some else’s collection.
“Many people have a nativity that has always been a big part of their family tradition,” Yanko-Jongbloed continues. “It is kind of like hanging the ornaments on the tree—the nativity is part of the family. There are probably many more people who collect them than we know.
“It is fascinating when people share the (Christmas) traditions they have in their families.”
Looking Towards Bethlehem
The next Friends of the Creche conference will be held in October 2017 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. and Yanko-Jongbloed is excited about the prospect of having a convention for creche enthusiasts in a town named Bethlehem. In addition to the business meeting, the exhibits, and the informational sessions, the conference will feature side trips to view the nativities and other Christmas traditions of the town’s Moravian residents.
Yanko-Jongbloed enjoys collecting nativities from her travels. “It is so interesting how creches express the country or the state where they are made,” she explains. “The artists use local figures and local materials to give their own artistic representation.”
She says she has a variety of nativities in many different shapes and sizes in her collection, including an Advent calendar that has tiny Santons behind each door. The final door to open holds Baby Jesus, she says.
When asked about her favorite nativity in her growing collection, Yanko-Jongbloed does not hesitate, however. It is that collection of Santons from Provence that started it all.
Membership in Friends of the Creche is $35 per year for U.S. residents, and it includes a subscription to the Creche Herald, a glossy magazine that is published quarterly, and a member directory.
You do not need to be a member to attend the convention; details will be available on the Friends of the Creche website as the event draws nearer. For more information, visit friendsofthecreche.org.