Some may see an increasing trend to celebrate Christmas with little acknowledgment of Christ's birth. But in the view of others, one of the season's icons is as popular as ever, or more so.

Creche care and display

Helpful suggestions from Friends of the Creche, a society dedicated to the Christmas nativity, include:

Affix figures to shelves with a clear gel used by museums to prevent them from being knocked over.

For a starry night sky effect, suspend miniature lights behind a piece of dark blue or black opaque fabric.

When setting up creches, designate a space as a "creche hospital" and repair broken pieces immediately to prevent losing them. Use good quality glue, not a hot glue gun, which won't leave a clean edge. Use a conservator to repair a piece with monetary or sentimental value.

Create personalized note paper and Christmas cards featuring a photograph of one of the creches from your collection. Have an Epiphany dinner and feature all the Magi figures from your sets.

Wrap each creche figure individually before storing. Use various sizes of tissue paper or bubble wrap cut to fit or bubble wrap bags.

Dust creche figures with an old-fashioned men's shaving brush. Dust hard-to-reach areas with a spray can of duster from an office supply store.

If smaller creches take up too much table space, display them vertically. Place each in floor-standing cases with movable shelves designed to store videos.

At Pauline Books and Media on King Street, visitors and locals choose creches from its ever-changing variety, says Sister Kathleen Thomas, the store's manager.

Some are starting a collection from a specific maker with Jesus, Mary and Joseph, says Thomas. Others are adding a piece each year. Still others are choosing a basic one-piece Nativity scene to give as a present.

"In Charleston there aren't a lot of Nativity stores," Thomas says, which draws curious shoppers to Pauline's. From what Thomas sees, the interest in creches is strong.

She's not alone in her observation.

Creche revival

At Mepkin Abbey, which holds a creche festival each November, the Rev. Guerric Heckel sees an even stronger interest.

"I am experiencing a revival of the creche," Heckel says.

At the first creche festival, 1,500 people attended. At the 11th festival, held last month, 6,600 attended.

Janet Fvarner, one of the Mepkin visitors, can't recall a home at Christmas that didn't have a manager scene when she was growing up. In her own home, it always was under the Christmas tree. The family looked forward to placing baby Jesus in it before going to Christmas mass.

Christmas, she says, is all about the coming of Christ. To her point, the Nativity scene goes up before the tree in her home.

Usually the Fvarners put the three wise men across the room from the manger so that it appears they are traveling, she says. On the Feast of the Epiphany, they place them at the manger.

Fvarner has five scenes, but this year her favorite is displayed. It's a large one with Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and an angel, a shepherd, a tree and a stable.

It's the most realistic of all her creches and the figures all are dressed in actual fabric. The animals have fur. The camel has a rug. And the wise men are dressed up.

As in some other homes, baby Jesus will not be placed in his bed until Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Kathleen Ferri is glad to see her grandson, Malek, will be carrying on the tradition. The 17-year-old set up her manger this year.

Creches affecting lives

"This is obviously touching something in people's lives, something that they are pulled to," says Heckel, a member of Friends of the Creche, a national organization that educates people about creches.

Having creches in homes has been more typical of Catholics in the past, but not anymore, says Heckel. Many are intrigued by the fact that, in addition to being religious symbols, they are folk pieces whose makers use whatever materials are associated with their station in life.

Both Catholic and Protestant churches have begun inviting members to bring in their creches to church two Sundays before Christmas, he says.

"One exciting thing we have been doing is commissioning contemporary artists to make ones. Mary May, a woodcarver from Johns Island; Angel Allen, a mosaic artist from Columbia; glass artists at Blue Heron in Charleston; and a lady from Beaufort who makes them with oyster shells were well-received."

In its creche store during this past festival, the abbey sold more than 1,000 creches, which many credit St. Francis of Assisi with introducing. While the creche store is now closed, the regular store has creches costing from $10 to $1,000.

"It's been a wonderful way to support those in Third World countries. We get a lot from Peru, Mexico, Kenya and Ireland and so those are very popular," Heckel says. The store also sells olive wood creches carved in the Holy Land.

"Ones from Peru would typically have hats on," he says. "On ones from Mexico, you might find chile peppers. Animals, such as a rooster, which is a symbol of Christ being risen from the dead, are found on those from Brazil. It becomes like a little family heirloom."

Three in one home

The main Nativity scene in the home of Kathleen and Michael Ferri is on their living room mantel. The one her husband received as boy is displayed in their home as well. A third one she used the first Christmas in her law office 20 years ago is there, too.

"My mother gave it to me the first year that I practiced law," she says.

Not everyone thinks of putting a creche in their law office, but when Ferri was young, there always was one under their Christmas tree.

"I can remember as a child lying on the floor, playing with the characters. Sometimes we wouldn't put the baby Jesus out until Christmas Day."

Like most children, they believed in Santa Claus and dreamed of getting presents, but were taught there was more to the season.

"We were always told that the most important thing about Christmas was the story of Jesus being born," Ferri says. "The creche reminds you of what Christmas is all about."

Ferri says this is the first year her son, Andrew, 12, was allowed to unpack and set up the manger by himself.

It was a very big deal, she says.

Reach Wevonneda Minis at 937-5705.