Malibu’s Community Nativity Scene Has History Complete with Miracle
• Local Creche and Caroling Continues to Provide Sense of Small Town Traditionalism in Changing World
BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN
On Saturday, Dec. 1, the familiar Malibu Community Creche will be installed at the corner of PCH and Webb Way, just in time for the first Sunday of Advent, when residents of many different religious backgrounds will gather there from all parts of Malibu to sing “Christmas carols, be inspired, join the camaraderie and enjoy refreshments,” in the words of event volunteer Elizabeth Smith.
For almost 50 years the stable with its hand-carved wooden nativity scene has been a Malibu holiday tradition.
In 1963, Malibu resident Mary Kuepper came up with the idea of setting up a community Christmas display. “I wanted to have some Christmas spirit,” Kuepper told the Malibu Surfside News in a 1993 interview.
With the help of the Malibu Chamber of Commerce, a Christmas tree and holiday sign featuring the Madonna and infant Jesus were installed on the corner of PCH and Webb Way.
In 1964, the Chamber encouraged Malibu’s five churches—Shepherd by the Sea Lutheran, Malibu United Methodist, Malibu Presbyterian, Our Lady of Malibu Catholic Church and Saint Aidan’s Episcopal Church—to put together Malibu’s first community nativity scene. The original creche was rented. It took several years before there were sufficient donations to purchase the almost life-sized figures that have become part of Malibu tradition.
Kuepper named the group of volunteers “Keep Christ in Christmas,” as a statement of support for the spiritual aspect of a holiday that, even in the 1960s, was viewed as becoming too commercial and materialistic.
The display has faced numerous challenges. The nativity figures were stored at the Serra Retreat during the September 1970 Chatsworth-Malibu fire that killed 10 people, burned 500,000 acres and 400 homes—175 in Malibu. Most of the Serra Retreat buildings were destroyed. The creche figures were retrieved from among the ashes and debris relatively undamaged.
Santa Anas, clocked at more than 80 mph, flatted the second creche structure.
The third creche was built with help from the Malibu Optimist Club. It now travels to and from storage on a trailer that was donated for the purpose, making it easier for volunteers to set up.
Several of the hand-carved European wood sculptures have been stolen over the years. Baby Jesus was the first target of thieves. The original figure was not secured. It was removed on Dec. 26, 1980.
Reports indicate that an unspecified “obscene” note was left at the scene. The case was never solved. The original angel was stolen on Dec. 30, 1986, and never recovered, although one witness claims to have seen it years later decorating the wall of a Los Angeles residence. Its replacement was removed in 1992.
Due to the weight of the sculpture, sheriff’s detectives surmised that the theft must have required the effort of two or more people.
A lamb stolen on Dec. 21, 2001 turned up two days later balanced on top of a Malibu Cove Colony mailbox. The sheep’s feet, which had been bolted to the floor of the creche, were broken off. The figure, valued at $7000, required extensive repairs.
Baby Jesus went missing for a second time in 2007, but was also recovered, although badly damaged.
A week before Christmas in 2008, the second sheep, valued at about $10,000, was stolen. It was never recovered.
Added security was installed in 2011. KCIC members had to reach a compromise between maintaining the openness of the Malibu manger scene, and securing the sculptures, which have become increasingly valuable.
According to KCIC lore, the original sculptures for the creche was carved over four decades ago in the tiny Tyrolean village of Ortezay, or Urtijei, at the base of the Alps.
Highly respected Italian artist Goffredo Moroder is said to have supervised the first carvings, which are considered to be on a par with work done for major cathedrals.
Each of the figures was carved from a solid block of larch, a deciduous conifer native to the European Alps that is prized for its knot-free, close-grained and durable wood.
When the carving was complete, the sculptures were hand-painted, using techniques that have changed little since medieval times and require multiple layers of hand-applied stains, paints and gold leaf.
Jackie Sutton, who has participated in KCIC from its inception and currently serves as the group’s president, told The News that the figures are in need of costly restoration. Damage from wind, rain and salt air has taken its toll on the sculptures, which require care specialists in the field of art restoration.
“We used to be supported by the service organizations,” Sutton said, “but not anymore. “We don’t get a dime from organizations. We depend on contributions from individuals now. Most of our budget goes to maintain the creche, but it’s worth it.”
At one time, the festivities included a Las Posada pageant, complete with live animals and a full cast of re-enactors in costume.
The pageant is history, but caroling at the creche continues to be a holiday tradition. An essay-writing and art competition also continue to be part of KCIC tradition. This year’s theme is expected to be announced later this week.
Community caroling is scheduled for 3 p.m. on each of the four Sundays before Christmas. Refreshments will be served after the caroling.
“It’s a chance to see old friends and meet some new ones,” Sutton said. “Everyone is invited to participate. The bigger the better.”
Anyone who wishes to make a tax-deductible donation can contact the group at P.O. Box 833, Malibu, CA 90265-0833.