A WC Man’s Christmas Story of a Precious Family Heirloom Surviving War and Revolution

A friend from Chicago, who is crazy about crèches and nativity scenes, e-mailed this New York Times story that features a lovely holiday tale about a Walnut Creek man and his strong attachment to his family’s 19th century miniature scene of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the Wise Men in that Bethlehem manger.

The December 18 story, “Many Takes on a Traveler’s Tale,” discusses the history of creating nativity scenes and the American hobbyists who specialize in collecting and building them. It ends with the nearly miraculous turn of events that brought a family crèche to Tom Scovel, a San Francisco State University linguistics professor who lives in Walnut Creek’s Rudgear area.

Scovel is pictured here in a Times photo. The Scovel section of the story reads:

Tom Scovel seems equally unlikely to part with his 19th-century German crèche, which has survived in his family for decades: it was hidden during Japan’s occupation of China in World War II; trucked across the battle lines of the Chinese revolution; and smuggled into Hong Kong in 1951, at the height of the mainland’s communist zeal.

Today, the crèche resides safely atop a tall cabinet in a house on a cul-de-sac … where Mr. Scovel, 69, lives with his wife, Janene, and their two school-age grandchildren. Or relatively safely, anyway. “Invariably, angels fall,” he said. “There’s nothing metaphorical about it.” Looking at the small figure that has hung atop his family Nativity for some 70 years, he added, “My father has glued her back together, and so have I.”

Mr. Scovel was born in Jining, China, a district capital in Shandong Province, where his Presbyterian parents — a doctor and nurse — served in a mission hospital through the 1930s. On the day Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the Imperial Japanese Army installed two soldiers at the Scovels’ home and placed the family under house arrest.

Mr. Scovel’s parents, preparing for even worse, buried their collection of antique Chinese coins and stamps in the backyard under cover of darkness; his grandmother’s crèche they stashed behind a false wall in the attic. Soon after, the army dispatched the Scovels and their four children by train to the Weifang concentration camp, where they remained until a Red Cross prisoner exchange delivered them back to American shores.

It was 1946 when the Scovels returned to missionary work in China, and another year before they borrowed a truck to try to recover what they had lost. The coins and stamps in the backyard were gone, but the crèche remained untouched in its original box.

This week, Mr. Scovel will tell the story of the crèche’s survival to a fourth-grade Sunday school class. “They have no concept of World War II,” he said. “They get it mixed up with the War of 1812.” Still, he said, he won’t be surprised if the crèche exerts the same kind of hold on them that it does on his grandchildren — and on him.

“Winter is coming and long nights, and God knows all the troubles that pervade us,” Mr. Scovel said. “And every year when it’s the darkest, there’s this crèche that survived so much.”

One thought on “A WC Man’s Christmas Story of a Precious Family Heirloom Surviving War and Revolution

  1. Thanks for posting this. I was always fond of the nativity scene my grandmother had, and have very warm memories of it, but I didn’t know there was this whole world of collectors. I want to read more.


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