KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — As we approach the holidays, the halls are decked with lights and trees and stockings. And for Christians, most importantly, the Nativity.
Inside Vel and Adney Cross's home you'll find not one, but hundreds of depictions of the manger scene.
"I started collecting nativities sort of by accident," Vel explained.
It all started around 30 years ago when the couple were teaching in African countries. They were living in a warzone in Namibia where they didn't see any Nativities. So during some Christmas traveling, the special scene caught Vel's eye.
"I just bought nativities as my curios or my souvenirs. And it started from there in 1989," she said.
As you stroll through their Knoxville home, you'll spot wisemen, shepherds, angels, animals, Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus all crafted from a variety of materials.
A Kenyan Nativity is made from banana leaves and stalks from a plant and one from Botswana made from corn shucks. The one from Kentucky is made from coal.
The interpretations range from serious to silly, including a rubber duck Nativity.
There are large creations all the way to teeny tiny, the size of your thumb! Any free space in their household is showcasing a Nativity.
As the years went by they continued to travel and collect and Vel received them as gifts from friends and family.
"Now I get them for my birthday, Christmas, Groundhog Day. Every holiday you can think of!"
More than 60 different countries are represented in the collection, and offer a lens into how other cultures portray the biblical story.
"In my Navajo set, the wise men are bringing corn and fish and things that are of value to that culture at the time and I think that's kind of neat. Baby Jesus is in a papoose and a little container, and I just love it."
"Worship should always be culturally expressive. And I think you can see that in the many different ways that the Nativity is expressed," said Adney.
The couple now owns 699 of them to be exact. But the number fluctuates year to year as Vel makes a gingerbread Nativity that doesn't last long once she says Adney gets his hands on it!
And wherever the little Lord Jesus lays his head, the Philippines or Finland, or just Knoxville, Tennessee, the message remains the same.
"The whole reason we initially celebrate Christmas is the birth of Christ. That God would not remain far from us, but would take on flesh to fully understand our experience and what happens with us. It's just a perfect expression of love. I think of that each time I see the Nativity," Vel said.
The couple enjoys inviting neighbors and friends into their home to share the joy that their collection brings them.
Each of the Nativities has a place card that says where it came from, who and what year.
They even set out a few kid-friendly Nativities for their grandchildren to play with. While also displaying drawings the kids do each year.