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A way with a manger is their gift to share

Couple donate collection to museum.

One of the Pomeroy's nativity scenes is by Heide Studios, December 4, 2012. ( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )
One of the Pomeroy's nativity scenes is by Heide Studios, December 4, 2012. ( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )Read more

Every Christmas season, for two decades, Alan and Mary Liz Pomeroy have unpacked figurines of Mary, Joseph, and the Christ Child that are a chronicle of years spent living abroad.

The couple's Sao Paulo Nativity in fabric and wool is a reminder of their first Christmas in Brazil. Another purchased in South Africa is made of sleekly carved ebony, a keepsake by an artist with roots in the Makonde tribe.

In all, the Pomeroys, of East Bradford, Chester County, have collected more than 200 depictions of what Christians believe is the birth of the savior. The couple are part of a group of aficionados captivated by Nativity scenes as a reflection of art, faith, and culture. No ceramic frog or rubber ducky renderings are in the bunch.

But as the Pomeroys approach their 80s and prepare to move to California, they've given away most of their beloved collection to a place where it will have an audience bigger than family and friends.

The Pomeroys donated more than 100 of their museum-quality sets to the Glencairn Museum in Bryn Athyn, which specializes in religious art. Fourteen of the couple's Nativity sets (also called crèches, from the French word for "crib") are on display through Jan. 6 as part of Glencairn's fourth annual "Follow the Star: World Nativities" exhibit.

"We wanted them in a place where they would be displayed, taken care of, and loved," said Mary Liz Pomeroy, 78. The Pomeroys collected many of the pieces while living abroad during Alan Pomeroy's tenure as an executive with General Motors.

The Glencairn show includes 40 Nativities from 23 countries. Sets donated by the Pomeroys include scenes from Cameroon, Honduras, Brazil, and Portugal made of materials such as bamboo, corn husks, and leather. The exhibit also includes sets that were owned by businessman Raymond Pitcairn and his wife, Mildred. The castlelike building that houses Glencairn was once the Pitcairns' home.

The Pitcairn Nativity sets on exhibit are similar to one the couple gave to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who displayed it in the White House in 1954.

"So many people grow up with Nativities and have such fond memories," said exhibit cocurator Ed Gyllenhaal, who described the sets as folk art. "We want to illustrate that Christians all over the world have adapted the tradition to their own culture."

During 52 years of marriage, the Pomeroys have lived in Portugal, Brazil, Germany, England, Yugoslavia, South Africa, and Mexico. In one two-year span, Pomeroy visited 50 countries.

Daughter Suzanne sparked his collecting hobby.

"I was picking up dolls for her all over the world, and then we would see the variety of crèches," said Alan Pomeroy, 79.

The couple shopped in street markets and neighborhood shops. Alan Pomeroy interviewed the artists and took notes. The Pomeroys studied the culture and history of people whose crèches they treasured.

Every aspect of the depictions, including the clothing, the location, and the animals, reflects the culture, said Mary Liz Pomeroy.

The Three Kings could be dressed as South American gauchos or African tribesmen. Instead of an ox and ass, the baby Jesus might be surrounded by water buffalo or zebras. Instead of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the three wise men might bring gifts of chili peppers and corn.

The Pomeroys eventually joined the 400-member Friends of the Creche, a U.S. group of collectors that hosts meetings and conventions for Nativity aficionados. In November, the Pomeroys traveled to Austria for a meeting of the International Creche Federation. They also toured a series of European creche exhibits with Rita Bocher of Wynnewood, a cofounder of the Friends group.

The Pomeroys began donating to the museum in stages more than two years ago. Periodically, they would transport Nativity sets they kept in boxes on the third floor of their 18th-century stone house to the Montgomery County museum.

Gyllenhaal and his wife, Kirsten, who co-curated the exhibit, interviewed the Pomeroys about the origins of each set and its purchase. The Gyllenhaals also researched each piece independently, and scoured Alan Pomeroy's notes.

The Pomeroys' more "commercial" pieces - about 50 Nativity scenes - have been given to the thrift shop of Westminster Presbyterian Church in West Chester. The Pomeroys kept a few crèches for sentimental reasons.

With their house on the market, the couple are preparing for the time when they will be 3,000 miles away from the collection they spent decades assembling.

Alan Pomeroy expects to travel from California each year to see the Glencairn exhibit.

For now, he travels from East Bradford. He said of the trip, "It feels like you're going to see your friends," and once inside the museum, "it feels like home."

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