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Wood Carvers of Bethlehem View Comments
By Lori Erickson

Elia Sway, a Palestinian Christian, carries on his family’s tradition of creating olive-wood carvings. Sway learned the art from his grandfather.
SINCE THE EARLY 1940s, members of the Sway family of Bethlehem have been carrying on a tradition with deep spiritual roots. Here in the town where Jesus was born, olive-wood carvings have long been crafted both as a biblical teaching tool and as a source of income in an economically distressed part of the world.

Using wood pruned from local olive trees, over the decades the Sway family has skillfully carved a wide range of figures: kindly Josephs, beatific Marys, regal camels, humble shepherds, and tiny infants that represent the humbling of God into human form.

“We tell the Nativity story in a way everyone can understand,” says Elia Sway, a Palestinian Christian who learned his skills from his grandfather. He now works with his son Iyad in a workshop attached to their home, a short distance from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

While Christians around the world set up small crèches in their homes each Christmas, carved figures from Bethlehem carry a special resonance and meaning. In addition to being made in one of the holiest sites in Christianity, olive-wood carvings from the Holy Land have other symbolic associations.

The Bible is full of references to olive trees, from Jesus praying under an olive tree in the Garden of Gethsemane to Noah receiving an olive branch from a dove as a sign the great flood had receded.

Olive-wood carving has been an honored craft in Bethlehem for many centuries. Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, visited the Holy Land in the fourth century and directed that churches be built on the major sites associated with Jesus’ life.

In Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity was constructed over the grotto that local tradition associated with the birth of Jesus. Monks came to live in the area and taught local craftsmen how to make figures that could be used to teach the biblical story. In doing so, of course, the artisans followed the example of Jesus, who also knew his way around a woodshop.

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Lori Erickson is a freelance travel writer with a love for writing about spiritual sites around the world.

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Columban: Columban was the greatest of the Irish missionaries who worked on the European continent. As a young man who was greatly tormented by temptations of the flesh, he sought the advice of a religious woman who had lived a hermit’s life for years. He saw in her answer a call to leave the world. He went first to a monk on an island in Lough Erne, then to the great monastic seat of learning at Bangor. 
<p>After many years of seclusion and prayer, he traveled to Gaul (modern-day France) with 12 companion missionaries. They won wide respect for the rigor of their discipline, their preaching, and their commitment to charity and religious life in a time characterized by clerical laxity and civil strife. Columban established several monasteries in Europe which became centers of religion and culture. </p><p>Like all saints, he met opposition. Ultimately he had to appeal to the pope against complaints of Frankish bishops, for vindication of his orthodoxy and approval of Irish customs. He reproved the king for his licentious life, insisting that he marry. Since this threatened the power of the queen mother, Columban was deported to Ireland. His ship ran aground in a storm, and he continued his work in Europe, ultimately arriving in Italy, where he found favor with the king of the Lombards. In his last years he established the famous monastery of Bobbio, where he died. His writings include a treatise on penance and against Arianism, sermons, poetry and his monastic rule.</p> American Catholic Blog There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church—which is, of course, quite a different thing. –Bishop Fulton Sheen

 
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