Photo courtesy of
It’s all about love,
desire and passion. A soap opera? No, it was the first meeting of Friends of
the Creche in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Drawn by their love of Christmas crèches, 160 participants from 26
U.S. states came to this area originally settled by Germans and
Moravians (from what’s now part of the Czech Republic), where Christmas
traditions run deep. Amateur collectors, professional sellers and
artists desired to learn more about the history and different ethnic
expressions of Christmas manger scenes. And they all have an insatiable
passion to share that love and knowledge with others.
Instead of children’s or grandchildren’s pictures, they proudly
showed off photos of their own Christmas cribs or the church displays they have
organized. The figures might have been fashionably designed by Fontanini, be
coveted santons from Provence, or
handmade in Bangladesh or by their children, but all are precious to them.
Although it was only November (November 8-10, 2001), they
gathered around the piano and sang carols. They had field trips to the National
Christmas Center in Paradise, Pennsylvania, with director Jim Morrison, who
looks like Santa Claus and even wears a red suit. They saw a multimedia
Christmas show at Millennium Theater, built by the Mennonites, and enjoyed a
unique choral piece, Bending Towards the
Light: A Jazz Nativity, directed by the composer, Anne Phillips. There were
exhibits of creches, talks, auctions, show-and-tells, a mini-market, raffles
and special awards.
As they broke up, they made plans to have a business meeting
every year and a full convention every other year.
Faith and Art
“Crèches bring together faith and art. They show a respect
for different cultures and artistic expressions,” says James Govan,
president of the group. He and his late wife, Emilia, began their
collection of creches over 30 years ago, “fascinated with the amazing
diversity with which artists depicted the Nativity.”
It is in memory of his wife that Jim carries on with the crèche
collecting and organizational activity. In fact, after Jim wouldn’t
leave Emilia during her final illness to attend Friends of the Crèche’s
December 1999 planning meeting, she made him promise several times
to stay involved in the future.
Their collection now includes more than 300 crèches from 80-plus
countries, especially African countries. Jim is retired from 34
years of service with the U.S. Agency for International Development
(AID). His work often took him to Africa where he acquired many
crèches. Since his retirement, he has commissioned even more
through his colleagues still working there.
Besides exhibiting his crèches at his home in Arlington, Virginia, he has shown
many of them in churches and storefronts, as well as at the Paul
VI Institute for the Arts and the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center,
both in Washington, D.C.
Father Johann G. Roten, S.M., director of The Marian Library and
International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton,
agrees that crèches lie at “the intersection of religion and culture.”
A member of the Pontifical International Marian Academy, Father
Roten serves on the board of directors for Friends of the Creche.
In 1994 he started collecting crèches for The Marian Library “to
document the manifold cultural and religious expressions of the Incarnation
event.” Today, the library has close to a thousand artifacts of great cultural
and geographical diversity. Objects of ongoing research and study, these
crèches are used in seasonal and year-round exhibits. (In December 1996, St. Anthony Messenger featured Father
Roten and the UD collection in the article “Christmas Cribs From Around the
The Swiss-born Father Roten, who used to teach social philosophy
at the Catholic University in Fribourg, was a featured speaker at the Lancaster
meeting. He talked of “unfolding the mystery of the Nativity,” and the motifs
that have developed through the centuries out of the Scriptures and apocryphal
The Nativity event not only refers to the birth of Jesus but also
in some traditions extends from the Annunciation through the flight into Egypt,
Father Roten says. In the West during the Renaissance, painters like Fra Lippo
Lippi suggested that what counts is Jesus’ humanity, and thus artists would
show the naked baby. The Eastern Church, on the other hand, tried to emphasize
Jesus’ divinity with light coming down from God the Father.
Little traditions developed, such as eight different positions
for Mary at the manger, the protective Joseph and the disaffected Joseph,
shepherds in the three ages of a man (young, middle-aged, old), angels as
masculine and feminine, the Magi and the star, the ox and ass. All Christmas
crèches convey theological understandings as well as cultural realities.
Society Forms Out of Creche Herald
Without Rita Bocher, Jim Govan says, there would be no
Friends of the Crèche. In 1997 she published the first issue of Crèche Herald, an international
quarterly that she hoped would link those who shared her love of the Christmas
nativity, “not only collectors, but all those who love or own crèches.” Rita
organized this convention and did tireless publicity for it.
Her own love of crèches goes back to a homemade one in second grade. A Catholic,
Rita has worked as a hospital administrator, college professor and
market researcher. She and her husband, Herman (Bud), live in Wynnewood,
Europe has had a Nativity Society for 50 years, Rita discovered.
In December of 1999, she held a planning meeting to form a similar group in the
United States, and in August 2000, a formal organizing meeting was held at the
University of Dayton, with Father Roten’s support.
Friends of the Crèche (FOTC) is interfaith, with high Catholic
involvement. Officially, FOTC is “a nonsectarian, nonpolitical and nonprofit
organization,” incorporated in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in January
Rita’s sister, Mary Herzel of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is the
secretary for Friends of the Crèche and, with her husband, Dr. Frank Herzel,
did a great deal of the convention planning, marketing and publicity. She
promoted the organization with other groups to which she belongs, like Pax
Christi. Mary and Frank travel extensively. It was through Mary, for instance,
that Rita got a crèche from Ethiopia.
Three members of the board of directors (M. Jay Bullock of
Columbia, Maryland; John Musser of Kenosha, Wisconsin; and Mary Jo Riegel of Dayton,
Ohio) did some creative fund-raising for the new society, with white-elephant
sales, vendor sales and sweatshirt sales at the convention.
Some of those involved, like Judith Davis of El Cerrito,
California, and her husband, Robert, attended the 16th International Nativity
Convention in Pamplona, Spain, in the fall of 2000. Pamplona has long been a
center for the crèche tradition. Fourteen attendees from the U.S.’s newly
formed Friends of the Crèche were warmly welcomed. Judy, its vice president,
represented the society in the international ceremonies.
When Judy was growing up in Chicago in the 1940s and ’50s, she
says her family “never had a nativity set underor even nearthe
Christmas tree. When I was grown, I began to think that celebrating
Christmas without a tangible reminder of Christ’s birth did not
seem quite right. So on a visit to Mexico in 1966, I purchased a
nacimiento.” This was the first of her 360 nativities from
Among Judy’s nativities are pop-up books, which she brought to
display at this meeting. During the Christmas season she hosts open houses at
her home and organizes displays for her Episcopal church and a hospital in the
San Francisco area.
Chapel Displays and Family Treasures
Another enthusiastic board member of Friends of the Crèche
is Brother Robert Reinke, C.F.P., now of Covington, Kentucky. When he joined
the Brothers of the Poor of St. Francis in 1959, they asked him to set up the
nativity in their chapel.
Their brotherhood had been founded on Christmas Eve 1857, in
Aachen, Germany. The first three brothers had made their vows before a crèche
set up by Blessed Mary Frances Schervier, who cofounded their congregation with
Philip Hoever. To this day, the brothers renew their vows before the crèche on
Christmas Eve. So in their congregation preparing the crèche display is a major
Brother Bob, who has worked with youth and the inner-city poor,
has collected a few nativity sets from his travels to Germany, Mexico and
His most precious, however, is a papier-mâché set left to him by
an aunt six years ago. A few pieces were missing. The figures were made by a
cottage industry in Germany, which ended with World War II. Brother Bob
frequented antique dealers and flea markets to complete his treasured family
set and picked up enough extra pieces to yield two additional sets and the
beginnings of three others.
Another Franciscan, Father Larry Zurek, O.F.M., of the Province
of St. John the Baptist, also attended the convention. He admits to a personal
interest in crèches and came to find out how to create a better crib display
for St. Michael Parish, which he pastors in Southfield, Michigan.
Bamboo Trees With Boston Fern Leaves
The convention had a number of very practical how-to
Michael Stumpf, a Bucks County (Pennsylvania) designer who has worked in advertising
and now does custom crèches (www.navidadusa.com),
suggested ways to add “realism and mystery [to] your crèche buildings.”
Emphasizing the importance of props and the setting for the
crèche, he advised the conventioneers to pay attention to architectural details
like doorways and rooflines. He demonstrated how columns can be carved out of
foam insulation. Balsa wood can be beaten to age it and painted with
watercolors to create a stable and manger. Arches can be borrowed from train
sets and columns from wedding-cake decorations for Roman-style classical settings.
A palm tree can be made from bamboo, with live Boston fern for
the leaves (and trailing a little Spanish moss). Roofs can be “thatched” using
broom sheaves or “shingled” like dollhouses.
Michael stressed the importance of keeping the scale, which is
keyed to the size of the Joseph figure, and maintaining the focus on Jesus.
God Is in the Details
Other presenters also focused on details in their manger
scenes. Father Richard Cannuli, O.S.A., is an associate professor of studio art
at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, as well as curator of the university’s
art gallery and a liturgical design consultant. He applies his fabric expertise
(acquired making liturgical vestments) to dressing the Nativity figures.
For Mary, he fashioned a shoulder-to-ankle tunic in wool
homespun, but not in her traditional blue, because most clothing then was
without pigment. Since the shepherds were from the lowest class of society, he
dressed them in natural homespun.
Father Cannuli thinks the Magi could have come from different
places, perhaps Arabia, India and Persia. So he dressed one in silk pants and
tunic, with a decorated camel beside him; another as royalty in silk brocade
with metallic threads who rides a splendidly outfitted elephant; the third with
David Doelp of Philadelphia is a perfectionist at getting tiny
baskets of foodstuffs and cooking pots correct for first-century Palestine.
Jésus Urtasun, a native of Pamplona and now a teacher of Spanish
at Holy Cross High School in Delran, New Jersey, tries to introduce his
students to the Spanish crèche tradition. He invited two of his students
(Caroline Haas and Christina Giglio) to the convention to show off their
crèches creatively made out of cardboard boxes.
Holly Zenger, a Mormon, organizes interfaith crèche
exhibits. She started displaying nativities with friends in 1987 when she and
her husband, Jack, were living in Palo Alto, California.
Five years ago when they moved to Midway, Utah, she
organizedfirst in her home, later in a community centeran exhibit of
nativities acquired from more than a hundred individuals. The display drew
4,300 people and was covered by three Salt Lake City television stations, and
the story was picked up by CNN. “We heard from people from Japan to New York
City who saw it,” she says.
In Midway and Provo, she works with the Council of Churches. This
year 10 churches in Heber and Park City will supply the hosting, and St.
Lawrence Catholic Church in Heber is going to decorate a room.
Holly says she considers these displays successful if they show a
large number of crèches, if many people have contributed their crèches, if many
people see the display and if the display leaves people with “the right
feeling.” She points out that focusing on crèches is one way “to keep Christ in
Now Holly’s displays may run an entire week, are free and include
a section for children’s pictures and displays for touching. Each night, there
is a performance by a choral group or bell choir. Each of the churches involved
usually donates $25-50 to buy fabric to cover the tables or for other expenses.
“Many people feel that the forces of evil have been unleashed in
our world, and that now, more than ever, people of faith need to come
together,” Holly said, in a direct reference to the terrorist attacks of
September 11, 2001, which were still fresh in the minds of those attending the
“In Provo, Utah, the minister of the Presbyterian church is Marty
Geister,” she continues. “At the conclusion of last year’s exhibit he said to
me, ‘This has done more to unite the people of all faiths, and to heal wounds,
than anything that has ever happened here.’
“A deacon of the Roman Catholic parish in my hometown, St.
Francis of Assisi Church, took the hand of another minister and said, ‘Now that
we know each other, let us be friends.’”
Holly admits she sometimes gets caught up in all the details of
the planning and display (like the 20 committees for tasks such as setting
up/packing up, lighting, cleaning and security). “But when I see parents
leading children through the exhibit, with their eyes glowing, I know it’s
Another Mormon, Betsy Christensen of Ann Arbor, Michigan, is also
passionate about crèches. What began in 1983 as decorations for a women’s
Christmas party has grown into so large a crèche exhibit that the nativities
must be rotated. To mark its 20th year, the Church of Latter-day Saints’
exhibit will display only 800
crèches, since “More is not always better....We want our focus not on numbers
of nativities but on the beauty, tenderness and uniqueness of each artist’s
portrayal of the birth of Christ.”
Other congregations are invited, and some of their choirs sing.
What the newspapers now call “an Ann Arbor Christmas tradition,” she says, “has
always been our church’s Christmas gift to the community.”
This mother of five and grandmother of 18 has helped encourage
and start 68 other exhibits in the United States and Canada. In fact, the Palo
Alto crèche exhibit with which Holly was involved was an offshoot of Betsy’s.
Betsy, who lived in France for a while, spoke at the 2002 annual
FOTC membership meeting in Frankenmuth, Michigan, October 26, 2002, on the
French tradition of santons. She says
she loves planning the next year’s exhibit and thinking about crèches
Other FOTC members also put on public displays, but many simply
open their own homes at Christmastime for visitors.
Board member Mike Whalen’s home in Clinton Township, Michigan, is
famous for his displays, too. He clears out the shelves of the family’s
entertainment center to set up the cribs. The van he rented to come to the
Lancaster convention was so filled with the albums, door prizes and table
centerpieces Mike had collected to give away there that his wife, Theresa, and
daughter, Jenny, wouldn’t fit and had to fly down.
His centerpieces were used for a silent auction at the final
banquet. Mike says he tried to portray the Nativity in many different settings.
For example, the Russian nesting nativity dolls were in a sleigh amid greens
and flowers. The Southwest sculpture by Jack Black depicted the Nativity with
sand and live cacti. The Infant Jesus riding in a little red wagon recalled an
old Christmas Dragnet episode shown
at the convention.
A Catholic who has taught junior high and high school religious
studies and now works in the mortgage banking industry, Mike says, “Five years
ago I felt I had a unique, perhaps strange interest. Now to have met so many
new people with a similar interest [at FOTC] just thrills me to death.”
Mike coordinated the 2002 business meeting of FOTC in
Frankenmuth is the home of another FOTC member, Wally Bronner,
the originator, with his wife, Irene, of Bronner’s CHRISTmas WONDERLAND
This Christmas store boasts a staff of 500.
Wally spoke at the Lancaster convention about his personal
experiences with nativity scenes and how this hobby grew into his business. He
takes particular pride in the new crèche tree ornament he had specially created
and the life-size Nativity figures he sells. Referring to current federal court
decisions that have tried to restrict religious displays in public settings,
Wally said, “Displaying a nativity scene is a freedom guaranteed to Americans
under the Bill of Rights.”
While Friends of the Crèche takes no official stand regarding the
Church-state question involved in civic displays, one of its purposes is “to
promote crèche exhibits.”
In Lancaster, Mike Whalen suggested a new project for the
society: to have members exchange photos of their crèches. He provided each
convention attendee with an album with some of his photos as a starter.
FOTC treasurer Julie Colflesh of Folsom, Pennsylvania, proposed
another society project: coordinating a Church crèche survey in order to
document the crèche’s history in the United States.
Julie is convinced that “our generation needs to document our own
nativity descriptions and traditions.” As a former administrator of the
Delaware County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society, she notes, “Photographs,
home movies and videotapes would provide an excellent body of primary source
material if properly organized.”
Since the FOTC convention, the
Crèche Herald also organized a trip to Germany for December 2002 to sample
the Christmas markets in Bamberg and Nuremburg. (Registration for that trip
Among FOTC’s goals is learning about how the crèche
tradition is expressed in various cultures. At the convention Dorothy McGonagle
of Sudbury, Massachusetts, spoke about the Neapolitan presepio tradition. She started as an antique doll collector but,
after trips to museums and churches in Naples, Italy, with her husband, Jerome,
she became totally “hooked.”
Presepios depict entire
villages and all aspects of 18th-century Italy as present at Christ’s birth,
to stress that the Nativity event involves us all. Dorothy worked with her
friend June Kibbe to put together the custom dolls and dioramas for the Boston
Public Library display, and prepared 75 figures for a Seattle exhibit.
Dorothy and Jerome claim their own “Christmas miracle”: Jerome’s
bone-marrow problem that required transfusions has been in remission since the
Susan Topp Weber owns Susan’s Christmas Shop (www.susansChristmasshop.com)
just off the plaza in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She lectures on New
Mexican Christmas customs for Elderhostels held in Santa Fe and
the Pueblos each December. She has won the community’s traditional
Christmas Eve lighting contest three times, using candlelit farolitos
or luminarias. (It takes about 750 brown paper bags, sand
and candlesand “lots of help lighting them at dusk,” she says.)
Susan attributes her joy in Christmas to growing up in an Army
family of 10 children who lived in Germany, Japan and other places. She has
loved and collected nativities since 1965. In 1975 a nativity she designed and
made was included in a show of production crafts at The Renwick in Washington,
D.C. It is now part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection.
When she opened her shop in 1978, she knew nativities would be a
big part of what she would offer. She finds nativities all over the world,
commissions local artists to make others and has sold to museums in Europe and
the United States. (She keeps adding to her own collection, too.)
Most Southwest nativities represent either the Spanish Colonial
tradition or the Pueblo Indian tradition. In the Colonial style the figures
carved from cottonwood are called bultos
and may be left natural or painted. The flat painted pieces are retablos. Both are called santos, since they depict saints.
The Pueblo nativities are of pottery made from local clay. At
least one pueblo near Santa Fe is forbidden by their religious beliefs to make
figures of any kind, so the nativity in their church is an interesting mixture
of accumulated figures, some very old, few of which match. One pueblo, Jémez
Pueblo, has a “live Bethlehem” which is open to visitors between Christmas Eve
and Epiphany. In the Southwest the Magi may bring moccasins, weaving and
pottery; angels have dark hair and braids; rabbits, bobcats and buffaloes come
Credit St. Francis
St. Francis of Assisi, possibly inspired by a pilgrimage to
Bethlehem, is credited with creating the first Christmas crèche at Greccio in
1223. He staged a nativity scene with live animals. St. Francis wanted to
remind us of God’s paradox in becoming human. The all-powerful God became a
weak, helpless baby. God chose a holy family but a poor one, then homeless, to
identify with us, to prove his love for us.
Friends of the Crèche members have been bitten by the collecting
bug, but what saves them from being merely acquisitive or even selfish is their
desire to share their crèches with others.
About half the FOTC members attended this first convention. The
society has 330 members in 44 states and the District of Columbia. The next
convention will be November 6-8, 2003, on Cape Cod in Hyannis, Massachusetts,
with the theme of “Crèches by the Sea.” Father Timothy Goldrick from St.
Bernard’s Church in nearby Assonet will be the chairman.
The next international meeting will be in 2004 in Hradec Kralove
in the Czech Republic.
Friends of the Crèche is a new group with noble aims. Focusing on
crèches helps keep the Incarnation central to any celebration of Christmas.
A one-year membership in Friends of the Crèche, which includes
receiving the quarterly newsletter Crèche Herald with the FOTC news, is $25. Please write: Friends of the Crèche,
523 Springfield Avenue, Folsom, Pennsylvania 19033. For a sample
issue of Crèche Herald, send $3 to 117 Crosshill Road, Wynnewood,
PA 19096-3511. Crèche Herald’s Web site is: www.op.net/~bocassoc/. The Marian
Library at the University of Dayton also carries information about
the society (www.udayton.edu/mary/gallery/creches/crechefriends.html).