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Friends of the Crèche

By Barbara Beckwith

A new society for those who love, own and collect representations of the Nativity wants to keep Christ's birth central to Christmas celebrations.

Q U I C K S C A N

Faith and Art
Society Forms Out of Creche Herald
International Connections
Chapel Displays and Family Treasures
Bamboo Trees With Boston Fern Leaves
God Is in the Details
Interfaith Displays
Church/State Displays
Society Activities
Neapolitan Dolls
Southwestern Retablo
Credit St. Francis

Friends of the Creche

Photo courtesy of
Jim Govan


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, Ohio (www.udayton.edu/mary), 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 World.”)

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 gospels.

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, Pennsylvania.

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 2001.

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.

International Connections

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 under—or even near—the 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 62 countries.

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 responsibility.

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 Brazil.

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 sessions.

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 full retinue.

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.

Interfaith Displays

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 organized—first in her home, later in a community center—an 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 Christmas.”

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 convention.

“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 worth it.”

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 year-round.

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.

Church/State Displays

Frankenmuth is the home of another FOTC member, Wally Bronner, the originator, with his wife, Irene, of Bronner’s CHRISTmas WONDERLAND (www.bronners.com). 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.”

Society Activities

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 filled quickly.)

Neopolitan Dolls

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 Seattle exhibit.

Southwestern Retablo

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 candles—and “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 to worship.

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).

 

Barbara Beckwith is the managing editor of St. Anthony Messenger and a graduate of Marquette University’s College of Journalism. She owns two crèches: a hand-carved one made out of olive wood in Bethlehem (for her home) and a blue-and-white painted clay set made in Mexico (for the office).

 

 


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