Her friends call her "the creche nut," but now that her collection of Nativity scenes has surpassed 400, Beulah Sommer has to be picky. It's not just a matter of taste, but space.

Scenes by craftsmen who use native materials and reflect not only the country of origin but also the faces of its people interest her the most. A tiny ebony Joseph from Malawi must have African features, the stable from Peru a baby llama, or perhaps a condor on the roof.

"This one's a riot," she says, handing over a set from Brazil made entirely of rubber. "Drop it -- it doesn't break."

But most of her collection is far too fragile and valuable to toss around. Delicate figurines, rich in detail, all less than 12 inches tall, are turned out in crystal, china, papier-ma~che', clay, gold, tin and bronze or exotic woods, fibers and nuts.

"I love every one of them for one reason or another," Sommer says of her finds from 61 countries. "The one made of tongue depressors, clothespins and toothpicks means as much to me as the Boehm." (That would be the fine American porcelain grouping valued at $1,500.)

Not one to clutter her Silver Spring house with wise men and the odd ox ("I get tired of looking at them if they sit around"), Sommer packs her scenes away for most of the year.

Then, as Christmas approaches, she carefully unwraps and admires and silently recalls how she acquired them over the past 20 years . . . The stranger at the airport in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, who produced a creche from her flight bag as a gift . . . The cab driver in Islamabad, Pakistan, who insisted she accept his family's humble heirloom set.

"They make me and so many people happy," she says. "I love to share them. That's what this season is all about."

Which reminds us to mention that you can see portions of Beulah Sommer's collection in holiday displays at the Hillwood Museum and the Washington National Cathedral through the month.