"It wasn't a conscious decision," says Dr. Walter Whipple of BYU. "I was an LDS mission president in Poland in 1990 and one day my wife and I bought a creche. We thought it was beautiful. After that, they just began piling up on top of each other."

Today Whipple has a dozen of the finest crib scenes Poland can produce. His collection has grown to include other religious art as well.Yves Perrin and his wife Kathleen got into the hobby much the same way. You follow your "bliss" - as Joseph Campbell would say, and and pretty soon, you're a creche collector.

"I was given a nativity set on the day I was born," says Yves. "It was a gift from my uncle. And over the years setting up the nativity was a family tradition. But there's more to it. The cultural aspect of them has a lot to do with it. The joining of people from many races and many lands."

That sentiment may say a lot about the current boom in crib-scene collecting. On the Belgium border is a museum for creches that is open year round. In Southern France, creche competitions are held, where artists construct entire miniature villages around the manger scene. The International Friends of the Crib have an international newsletter. Locally, at the Art Access gallery, "retablo" (shadow box) nativity scenes by Peruvian artist Jeronimo Lozano are hot items. The LDS Church Museum of Art has a nativity collection that's very popular each year. And most everyone has a friend who's taken up the creche as a collectible. Several Deseret News staffers are creche-o-philes, including social services writer Lois Collins.

"The hobby is growing," says Collins. "And the variety is growing, too. I saw an origami nativity the other day. Some are small enough to fit in half of a walnut shell, others are life-size and larger. And the traditional-looking Biblical characters have changed, too."

In short, Christmas crib scenes have gone from being a Catholic icon to being a universal symbol of the season and a touchstone for humanity. Needless to say, they are a moneymakers as well. One statue of a wise man by Lladro, for instance, was selling locally for more than $1,000.

And the interest spreads far beyond Utah.

"We're not on the Internet or anything," says Betsy Christensen of Ann Arbor, Mich. "But the interest is out there."

Christensen organizes Ann Arbor's annual creche exhibit. Set in an LDS ward house, the display featured 770 nativity scenes this year. Some 4,000 people visited the exhibit in just four days.

"We would have held it longer," says Christensen, "but the boys needed the gym for basketball.

"Still," she says, "There's a great wave of enthusiasm for collecting. Our exhibit has served as the `seed' for 20 to 25 others around the country. We have videos we distribute now. This is our 13th year in Ann Arbor. And a lot of people who began here with one nativity scene now have a lot of them."

So what's driving this interest? Christensen says the popularity of the crib scene ebbs and flow over history. And the new quest for spiritual meaning in America undoubtedly helps fuel the popularity. But more than that, it's the universality.

As Christensen points out, the nativity was once depicted as being from a certain time and a particular place. Now, creches have gone multinational. There are eskimo creches, with penguins and polar bears looking in. Native American and African creches can be found. Hispanic, European and Asian versions are popular. The crib scene has become a unifying link between people and cultures.

Then, too, there is the simplicity and beauty of the story behind the scene. Often referred to as "The Greatest Story Ever Told," the nativity sums up in a simple, understandable way Christian theology. It is the place, as the song says, where "the hopes and fears of all the years" are met in one recognizable moment.