Saturday, Dec. 16, 2006
The Czech village of Trest is famed for its vast, handcarved nativity scenes

Every Christmas Season, Jan Bukvaj builds an enormous landscape out of tree stumps, moss and dried flowers in a studio in his backyard. At the scene's center he places century-old wood-carved figurines representing the Holy Family. He then populates the slopes, lakes and caves with several hundred animals, shepherds, fishermen, hunters, hunched grannies and bearded villagers, many of which were carved and painted by Bukvaj himself. But he wishes it was even bigger: Bukvaj feels that his 7-m-by-3-m room still doesn't provide enough space for his nativity scene. "If I only could tear this wall down," he laments.

The residents of Trest, a sleepy Czech Republic town in the highlands halfway between Prague and Vienna, have been putting up elaborate nativity scenes in their homes for almost 200 years. Bukvaj's is just one of 15 homes that open up to the public from Dec. 25 to Feb. 2 each year. The healthy rivalry that exists among the often amateur wood-carvers is the source of constant innovation. Bukvaj, 63, a retired miller, has recreated dozens of species of mushrooms, butterflies and birds in miniature. He's also introduced transparent glass lakes that showcase his tiny wooden fish.

Bukvaj's was among 20 families that kept the Christian-inspired tradition alive under communist rule—even his uncle, "a convinced comrade," set up a nativity each year. But while the once dominant Catholic Church has not seen much of a revival since democracy returned, the nativities have."This is something we've inherited from our forefathers," says Bukvaj. And the tradition is being happily embraced by new generations: a dozen kids in Trest are happily chiseling away in a youth-center workshop, as they have done since 1990, a year after the fall of communism.

Lukas Anton, 13, is the first in his family to take up the tradition. He doesn't know much about the Christmas story in his diorama, but it doesn't faze him. "I enjoy this," he says. "I don't see a reason to ever quit." For more information, contact the Trest tourist information center, tel: (420) 567 234 567;

From TIME asia Magazine, issue dated December 25, 2006-January 1, 2007 Vol. 168, No. 26/27

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