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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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Bridget: From age seven on, Bridget had visions of Christ crucified. Her visions formed the basis for her activity—always with the emphasis on charity rather than spiritual favors. 
<p>She lived her married life in the court of the Swedish king Magnus II. Mother of eight children (the second eldest was St. Catherine of Sweden), she lived the strict life of a penitent after her husband’s death. </p><p>Bridget constantly strove to exert her good influence over Magnus; while never fully reforming, he did give her land and buildings to found a monastery for men and women. This group eventually expanded into an Order known as the Bridgetines (still in existence). </p><p>In 1350, a year of jubilee, Bridget braved a plague-stricken Europe to make a pilgrimage to Rome. Although she never returned to Sweden, her years in Rome were far from happy, being hounded by debts and by opposition to her work against Church abuses. </p><p>A final pilgrimage to the Holy Land, marred by shipwreck and the death of her son, Charles, eventually led to her death in 1373. In 1999, she, Saints Catherine of Siena (April 29) and Teresa Benedicts of the Cross (Edith Stein, August 9) were named co-patronesses of Europe.</p> American Catholic Blog Teaching by example forms a durable base from which to form character. It is the base, but alone it won’t raise the kind of person you want. Being a moral adult is fundamental to teaching children morals. But it is not sufficient, in and of itself.

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