A manger is the cradle of choice for the little Lord Jesus to lay down his sweet head. What that biblical baby bed is made of, however, can be the stuff of artistic imagination. Pencils, for instance.

Jesus snoozing on a bed of yellow pencils, watched over by his mom, dad, shepherds and wise guys, is one of many variations on the famed biblical birth scene featured in A World of Nativities. The free exhibit, in its fourth year at the Thousand Oaks Community Gallery in Newbury Park, includes more than 400 nativity scenes from around the world.

The nativities are from the collections of Connie Olson, Camille Van Ast and Anna Gaz, parishioners at St. Julie Billiart Catholic Church in Newbury Park.

Around 75 countries are represented, Olson said. Each year, the nativities on display are mostly the same, with a few new additions. Olson and her husband, Jim, try to find nativity scenes when they travel. This year they picked up a Krakow nativity from Poland — an elaborate creation made from foil paper and beads that uses historical Krakow architecture as a backdrop.  

 “Each country puts a little of their own culture into each one,” Connie Olson said.

A Japanese nativity is in the form of kokeshi dolls — solid wood figures that have been carved or painted. A Philippines scene includes figures made from tightly rolled newspapers. The oldest set in the exhibit, Olson said, is a 300-year-old, Renaissance-style nativity from a church in Spain.

The artistic anatomy of Mary, Joseph, Jesus and their entourage isn’t limited to traditional materials such as wood, clay, porcelain and stone. Less traditional materials in the exhibit include spent bullets (remnants from Liberia’s civil war), light bulbs, soda cans, pine needles and horsehair.

Connie Olson said she’s drawn to nativity scenes because “they’re so beautiful and creative in terms of the artistic representation of a single idea.”

Jim Olson said the exhibit is for anyone, regardless of religion. “We’re not promoting Christianity,” he said. “It’s about diversity. If you have an idea, you can present it in thousands of different ways.”

A World of Nativities will be on display Dec. 12-23 and Dec. 26-28 at the Thousand Oaks Community Art Gallery, 2331 Borchard Road, Newbury Park. For more information, call Connie Olson at 480-3962 or visit www.toartgallery.org.