From the Worldwide Faith News archives

[PCUSANEWS] Creches Embody - Literally - the Meaning of

Date 14 Dec 2001 15:17:27 -0500

Note #6981 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

Creches Embody - Literally - the Meaning of Christmas for Many Christians

Creches Embody - Literally - the Meaning of Christmas for Many Christians

by Ted Parks
Religion News Service

WASHINGTON - Christians believe Jesus came. And in some places this season,
he comes in black, white, brown, bronze - even with a CD for a halo.
 	These special places are nativity exhibits, sometimes called "creches,"
from the French, or "presepios," from the Italian. In these multicultural,
often miniaturized celebrations of the doctrine of the Incarnation, Jesus
takes form not in flesh, but wood, ivory, porcelain and a multitude of other
earthly materials.
 	While many families across the nations use nativity sets as part of their
traditional Christmas decorations, individual collectors sometimes amass
hundreds of the small reproductions of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men,
the Shepherds and other creatures forming the cast at the first Christmas
according to Christian tradition and legend.
 	In the spirit of the season, some collectors share their nativity hoards
by putting them on public display.
James Govan, who owns more than 300 creche sets, has lent about 40 of his
sets for a special exhibit at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in
 	Govan is president of "Friends of the Creche," a group of American
nativity collectors organized in August 2000.  With between 300 and 375
current members, the American organization is considering joining the
Universalis Foederatio Praesepistica (General Creche Federation), an
international group founded in 1952.
 	The Govan group of nativities shows the multicultural scope of creche
displays. His, for example, come from about 80 countries. In addition to
purchasing pieces already complete, Govan has commissioned custom creches
which demonstrate the way modern artisans interpret the ancient Christmas
story in light of their own culture.
 	One nativity Govan singled out reflects Hispanic tradition. After becoming
acquainted with the woodcarving of Alfredo Rodriguez, Govan requested that
the San Antonio, Texas, craftsman apply his skills to the creche.
 	A firefighter by trade, Rodriguez sent Govan the custom-made nativity in
two stages, with the Holy Family arriving one year, the Wise Men, the next. 
With red adorning the Wise Men as well as Joseph and Mary, the set includes
a rooster highlighted with a red beak and comb.
In the Spanish-speaking world, Christmas Eve midnight service is the "Misa
del gallo," the "cock's crow Mass." Making the Christmas story speak the
cultural idiom of believers in their time and place is at the heart of the
nativity tradition.
 	While motifs from the story of Jesus' birth adorned Christian sarcophagi
early in the church's history, experts link the development of the nativity
scene directly to Francis of Assisi, who persuaded medieval Italian peasants
to play Joseph, Mary and the others to make the Christmas story come alive.
 	"What he was trying to do was to try and make the Christmas story real and
tangible and meaningful," said Lori Amos, volunteer curator of "Good Tidings
of Great Joy," an annual creche exhibit at the (Episcopal) National
Cathedral in Washington.
 	Historians of the creche trace the first three?dimensional nativities back
to late 13th century Italy, when sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio created figures
for the Santa Maria Maggiore church in Rome, Govan said.
 	Naples, Italy, subsequently played a key role in the development of the
nativity scene.  "It was in Naples that the art of the creche as we know it
first flourished," writes historian Matthew Powell in his book, The
Christmas Creche.  Besides adorning churches, creches first appeared in
private homes in Naples as well, Powell said.
 	According to Govan, in the 18th century nativities began to appear more
regularly in people's homes.
 	Like the exhibit at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, the show at the
National Cathedral builds on the passion of an individual collector,
cathedral docent Beulah Sommer. Now in its 11th year, the show usually
attracts about 10,000 visitors annually.
 	A nativity set that often makes visitors "stop in their tracks," Amos
said, typifies the richly diverse perspective of the exhibit. From
Singapore, the set is made from the interior of the cinnamon tree. In a
process similar to making incense, the wood is ground and mixed with water
to form a scented paste.  The makers of the creche applied the mix to
armatures to form its multiple figures, each of which took between two and
15 hours to shape. The set includes the Holy Family, three Magi, and several
 	Another striking nativity, carved in Oaxaca, Mexico, is a large piece in
the form of a retablo, or altar decoration. The scene features angels, "an
immense number" of sheep and only two of the traditionally three Wise Men. 
The Christ?child lies on an altar?like box, Amos said, reflecting a Latin
American nativity motif that links the infant Jesus with his eventual
sacrificial death.
 	Some nativities have value not because they come from faraway lands but
places deep in the heart. Others attract attention not from their exotic
materials, but because, like the Christmas story itself, they wrap the
divine in the commonplace.
 	Carmela Elsley, of Thousand Oaks, CA, recently displayed a simple
three?piece nativity at "No Room at the Inn," an annual crhche exhibit near
Los Angeles that charges a modest entrance fee, then donates event proceeds
to area homeless.
 	A card beside Elsley's nativity reads, "Hand made of unglazed clay when I
was pregnant with our first child 28 years ago."
 	Across the room from Elsley's items and an expensive Armani crhche was a
nativity made out of ordinary office supplies. CD halos ringed the
light?bulb heads of Jesus and his parents, and the babe lay in a manger of
crisscrossed yellow wooden pencils holding in recording?tape hay. Looking on
was a sheep formed from a coiled telephone cord.
Judy Crenshaw, one of the organizers of "No Room at the Inn," sees part of
the appeal of the California exhibit in its power to unite people around the
common story of Christmas. "I keep coming back to this sense of
connectedness," Crenshaw said. "You can hear people talking to strangers as
they view this. It's a way of coming together and just
sharing stories and  feelings," Crenshaw said.
"Everyone comes to it similarly but still differently, in terms of the
context of their own beliefs," said Govan. While "many pieces are just
simply beautiful works of art to enjoy aesthetically," Govan said, "the
point is, it's a portrayal of the human family."
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