Far from their families, probably lonely and scared, a handful of young German men picked up honey-colored pieces of balsa wood and began to whittle. During the day, as prisoners of war, they worked in the canning factories dotting the Green Lake, Wis., countryside. But at night, transformed into artisans, they devoted themselves to constructing an elaborate Nativity scene.

Perhaps the approaching Christmas season inspired them to select the Nativity as their subject. Or maybe it was to give thanks to God that they were still alive while World War II raged on overseas. Whatever the reason, the men were able to complete their Nativity set before being transferred to another POW camp that fall of 1944. And for whatever reason, the men left their beloved Nativity set behind.

Little did they know that some 50 years later, their heartfelt creation would help form one of the world's largest permanently displayed Nativity collections, housed at Algoma Boulevard United Methodist Church in Oshkosh, Wis. And they surely would not have suspected that it would become one of the most popular pieces in the church's Nativity Collection.

The POW Nativity took a circuitous route to Oshkosh, traveling to an antique shop, where a member of the Algoma Boulevard church spotted it. The parishioner had previously seen it in Green Lake, and was aware of its history. Immediately, he knew it was destined to belong to his friend and fellow parishioner Mildred Turner of Omro, Wis. For Turner was in the midst of amassing a large, diverse Nativity collection.

Goal of 1,000

Turner's quixotic quest began in 1988, after a trio of setbacks — a chronic illness, a forced retirement from her beloved teaching job and the death of her mother. Determined not to be blue, especially at Christmas, she announced she was starting a Nativity collection. Eight years later, she had collected a staggering 600, and set a goal of snagging 1,000.

"Every imaginable surface [in her home] had Nativities," says Kate Yarbo, a museum docent. "She had a breezeway built between her house and garage just to have it full of shelves so she could put up more of her sets."

Word spread of her impressive collection, and people began regularly stopping by to see it. Turner decided it was time to find a permanent home for her collection. But she held firm to two requirements. She wanted a spacious place where every set could be displayed, and she wanted a place that could display them year-round. That spot turned out to be the lower level of her own church on Algoma Boulevard.

Turner achieved her goal of collecting 1,000 sets before passing away in 2007. Her rich, diverse collection, designated a "must-see" by the website Friends of the Crèche, contains sets from around the globe: Scotland, Germany and the Philippines. India, Iraq, Japan and Russia. Ecuador, Kenya, China and Zululand. And, of course, the Holy Land.

Wide range

The pieces showcase great depth in the art form. In addition to the commonplace porcelain and wooden sets, you'll find Nativities fabricated from plaster, tin, felted wool, clay, marble, salt, bread dough, wood shavings and celluloid. Hondurans fashioned a set from seed pods; children made simplistic Nativity scenes using Popsicle sticks and even marshmallows. A crowd favorite is a humble Nativity scene fashioned by disabled Kenyan artists, who used Coca-Cola cans as their medium.

For those who appreciate whimsy, there are depictions of the Holy Family in a bottle, on a slide-tile puzzle and tucked inside a tiny, delicate quail egg. The Nativity scene is also featured on a totem pole, on wind chimes and on a tablecloth. There is even a box of Nativity animal crackers.

Turner's collection also contains Nativities created by famous artists and studios such as Fontanini, Lladró, M.I. Hummel, House of Fabergé, Ted de Grazia and the Franklin Mint. There's a gold veneer set by Otagiri, a white ceramic Lennox Nativity with gold trim, and an antique ivory set from India.

Yarbo says the impressive collection is not valued. "Even if it was, I wouldn't tell you what it was worth," she says. Because as Mildred Turner intended, the true value of her Nativity collection lies in its diversity and accessibility.

Other attractions

The Oshkosh Public Museum and the Paine Art Center and Gardens are one block north of the Algoma Boulevard church.

The museum is located in a 1909 English Tudor Revival home. During the holidays, the former 35-room estate is decorated as it would have been in the early 20th century. This "Deck the Halls" exhibit, through Dec. 31, includes Christmas Village windows that depict scenes from classic holiday movies (1-920-236-5799; oshkoshmuseum.org).

The Paine is housed in a 1925 Tudor Revival-style estate. Visitors can make reservations for its popular "Nutcracker in the Castle" event through Jan. 8. Guests become part of "The Nutcracker's" opening party scene, complete with an immense Christmas tree, and see elaborately decorated rooms such as Clara's bedroom and the Land of Sweets (1-920-235-6903; thepaine.org).

Melanie Radzicki McManus lives near Madison, Wis. Her most recent book is "Thousand-Miler: Adventures Hiking the Ice Age Trail."