Creche collection fills niche

A Sanger woman is using her collection of nativity pieces from around the world to inspire visitors to slow down during one of the most chaotic times of the year and remember why Christians celebrate Christmas.

Judy Klein, who’s known as the “Mangermaid,” created Bethlehem in Denton County a decade ago. The museum, located at her home, features a collection of 2,900 nativities from all over the world, many of them constructed of unusual materials.

Nativities from Brazil, Poland, Guatemala, Ireland, Russia, Tanzania and dozens of other countries are on display. They are made of banana bark, teak, ebony, ash, pottery, crystal, marble, paper and shells — almost any material the artist could imagine and obtain.

Klein said Third World artists are especially creative with resources.

“Some of them have evolved into a folk art,” she said, pointing out a manger scene from Haiti, constructed of used oil drums.

Many artists depict the holy family as looking like people from the artists’ lives, which leads to a wide variety of ethnicities represented in the collection. The museum also contains whimsical nativities featuring bears, dogs, other animals and even the Peanuts gang. There are lighted, musical, rotating and talking nativities, as well as Christmas trees with hundreds of ornaments depicting Christ’s birth.

Klein said she did not make a conscious decision to start collecting nativities. When her children were small, she purchased a greenware manger scene for them to paint as a summer project. From there, she said, it just “sort of grew.”

“Friends, family and even strangers contribute or tell me about them,” Klein said. “I’ve always got my radar on for one that’s different from all the others.”

She also shops eBay, catalogs and garage sales. The collection has grown so much that a second addition to the museum is being planned.

The 18-by-20-foot building that houses the collection was constructed by Monroe Klein, Judy’s husband, on their 29-acre farm south of Sanger.

“I think of Bethlehem in Denton County as a husband’s gift to house God’s gift,” Judy Klein said.

The collection is the only permanent display of nativities in Texas, and one of 26 listed in the U.S. by Friends of the Creche, the international organization of nativity collectors.

The organization has given Bethlehem in Denton County a four-star “must see” rating. Since it opened at Christmas 2000, the museum has entertained just over 2,000 visitors from 99 Texas cities, 38 states and 11 countries.

Klein returned this month from the biannual conference of International Collectors in Toronto, so she’s bubbling with new inspiration. She also has a brand-new, foot-tall nativity from Singapore, custom carved for her from cinnamon tree pulp by artist Amos Tey.

Parts of the collection have been exhibited at the Courthouse-on-the-Square Museum, Blue Mound United Methodist Church, Dogwood Estates and the International Museum of Cultures in Dallas.

The museum is open nights and weekends by appointment only. For more information, contact Klein at 940-231-4520 or [email protected], or visit www.bethlehemindentonco.com.

IF YOU GO

What: Bethlehem in Denton County, a small museum displaying a personal collection of 2,900 nativities

When and where: The museum in Sanger is open nights and weekends by appointment only. To schedule an appointment, for location and more information, contact Judy Klein at 940-231-4520 or [email protected]

Details: Admission is free. Groups of up to eight to 10 people can be accommodated at one time, and children are welcome.

On the Web: www.bethlehemindentonco.com

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