It all began in 1969 at a J.C. Penney department store in Kennewick, Wash., when Don Blythe purchased a simple plastic Nativity scene.
“It’s just a little cheapie, and it created this mess,” Blythe said, gesturing to his living and dining rooms.
About 165 Nativity scenes decorate the hilltop Templeton home that Blythe shares with his wife of 51 years, Letha. They’re spread out over shelves, tabletops and windowsills. Nativity-themed ornaments hang from a large, artificial Christmas tree, while a particularly large, elaborate set occupies a pool table.
“I almost had a heart attack when she brought (that one) home” from Los Angeles, Don Blythe joked.
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Some of the Nativity scenes are souvenirs from the Blythes’ travels to China, Germany, Mexico, Tahiti and other exotic locales. Others were purchased by friends or made by family members, lovingly crafted out of everything from clay to crochet to leaded glass.
“That’s why they’re all so special,” Letha Blythe said, describing the collection as fun, festive and full of memories.
First popularized in 13th Century Italy, Nativity scenes, also known as crèches or manger scenes, are depictions of the birth of Jesus as described in the Biblical gospels of Matthew and Luke.
Although all Nativity scenes traditionally depict three figures — Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus — in a stable, many include adoring angels, barnyard animals, shepherds and the Three Wisemen.
The Blythes’ crèche collection, which goes on display the day after Thanksgiving, features Nativity scenes made of brass, stone, wood and other materials. Individual sets range in size from a tiny soapstone scene measuring three-quarters of an inch high to woven-grass figures standing nearly 4 feet tall.
One of their most treasured possessions is a handcrafted Lladró Nativity scene from Spain. Each of the intricate, pastel-colored porcelain pieces cost about $400.
“The Lladro is my personal favorite,” Don Blythe said. “It has such a simplicity to it, and yet it’s so fine and detailed.”
Other highlights include a crystal Waterford Nativity scene from Ireland, a glass crèche from Venice’s Murano glassworks and a Lenox set featuring ivory china accented with 24-karat gold and gem-toned enamel. Navajo artist Jack Black created the modernist crèche made of bisque-fired clay that is the jewel of the Blythes’ Native American-themed Nativities.
Amassed over four states and more than four decades, the collection has followed the couple and their four children through several moves. (Before retiring, Don Blythe held 14 management positions with J.C. Penney over 35 years, while his wife worked as a bookkeeper.)
The Blythes moved into their current home in rural Templeton in October 2002, roughly a year before the 2003 San Simeon earthquake shook the North County.
“The house looked like it had been in a mixer,” Letha Blythe recalled.
The magnitude-6.6 temblor broke the house’s foundation in seven places and cracked walls and walkways, but the Blythes’ fragile Nativity scenes suffered the most dramatic damage. Although 40 to 50 sets could not be repaired or replaced, the couple and their loved ones have done their best to restore the collection.
Letha Blythe has now stopped buying Nativity scenes, although her collection of Santa Claus and snowman memorabilia is on display in the kitchen.
“I have to be careful saying I like something,” she said, because people in search of gift ideas usually interpret it as a cue that she’s starting a new collection. “We have snowmen coming out of our ears.”