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For The Home

Nativity Sets

Author: Maria Matson
Issue: December, 2012, Page 38
Photos by David B. Moore

This Talavera nativity set is imported from Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico, which is renowned for its colorful Talavera pottery. Find this set, available in a variety of colors, at Mezas in Art.

And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.—Luke 2:7

And so began the life of Jesus Christ. His quiet, humble entry into the world belies the importance of the event for Christians. The birth of the Son of God fulfilled one of many prophecies in the Old Testament, and with Him was born the promise of mercy, redemption, peace, goodwill and salvation. It was a most holy event that has since been celebrated around the world.

We call it Christmas. While holiday traditions and symbols of the season vary from country to country, the nativity remains a common thread among the faithful, and three-dimensional depictions of this moment are treasured by many.

“The basic nativity scene shows the Holy Family—Mary, Joseph and the Divine Child—usually in a stable setting,” says Rev. Fr. Jorge Eagar of Chandler, Arizona. “Often, there are angels, an ox and an ass, shepherds and sheep. The three Magi enter on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, and are sometimes represented riding on a camel, an elephant and a horse.”

These small clay figures were crafted by New Mexico artist Lupe Lucero. This nativity set is available at the Heard Museum.
The first nativity scene is said to have been the brainchild of St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Catholic Church’s Franciscan Order. In 1223, it is believed that he created a living tableau in a cave near Greccio, Italy. There, surrounding a wax figure of the infant Jesus in a hay-filled manger, were two townspeople representing Mary and Joseph, and a donkey and an ox borrowed from a friend. This scene, he believed, would make the meaning of the first Christmas more real, more accessible and more impactful for churchgoers than just listening to a priest recount the story, most likely in Latin.

The tradition spread, and now the French create crèches; in Mexico, they are called nacimientos. Likewise, there are Polish szopkas, German krippes, Italian presepi and so on, from Argentinia to Zimbabwe. Made from a range of materials, including terra cotta, wood, plaster, stone, paper or even banana leaves, nativity scenes around the globe often reflect the customs, colors and clothing of a particular culture. The Marian Library International Crèche Collection at the University of Dayton, for example, includes a nativity scene from Brazil that reflects life in the Amazon: Mary and baby rest in a hammock, Joseph serves a platter loaded with tropical fruits, and the couple’s faces and bodies are painted in traditional tribal colors.

While all are symbolically special, some are notable. Every year, The Metropolitan Museum of Art draws crowds with its display of some 200 18th-century Neapolitan crèche figures arranged on and around a towering, candlelit spruce tree. Another, photographed for the pages of a book on entertaining, was crafted by an incarcerated Martha Stewart in the prison’s pottery shop. There are also nativity scenes that hold Guiness World Records. The largest is in Mexico City. It includes 57 scenes with life-size figures, and spans an area the size of four football fields. At the other end of the record-breaking spectrum is the smallest nativity, which sits on the head of a pin. Italian craftsman Aldo Caliro crafted a tiny Mary, Joseph, Jesus and an angel, then painted them with a single hair from a paintbrush.

This four-piece papier-mâché nativity set was made in Querétaro, Mexico, which exports papier-mâché figurines and statues worldwide. Available at Mezas in Art.
Regardless of notoriety or size, three-dimensional nativity scenes are highly collectible. Some people prefer complete sets, including Gail Fawcett of Phoenix, who has more than 60 crèches. “I started collecting them 20 years ago, after I saw a collection at the home of a family friend,” she says. “I buy sets that are unique and reflect the area I happen to be traveling in.”

Others, like Fr. Eagar, collect figurines and create a single, large scene over time. Eagar received his first figure from a great-aunt when he was 10 years old. Fifty-five years later, he has 1,200 figures ranging in height from ¼ inch to 1 foot.

“I used to display the nacimiento inside my home, but as I added more pieces, I could not put all the pieces out at the same time, so I moved it out to the third-car garage,” Eager says. “I created a huge, multi-level montage so I could display the whole collection. There is only one Christ child, but there are about nine village scenes. There’s a Native American village, a German village, a Mexican marketplace, a lakeside scene and a Peruvian village. They’re all groupings of figures I’ve collected or received over the years.”

Eager buys figurines from local antiques shops, folk-art stores, and on his travels to Los Angeles and Mexico. Some of his favorites are barro, or clay, figures from Guadalajara.

“I like the different ethnic ones that represent the nativity of Jesus with different ethnic garb or different ethnic faces,” Eagar says. “To me, that portrays the universality of Jesus’ birth.”

From left: This blackware nativity set was made by New Mexico-based artists Paul and Dorothy Gutierrez, a husband-and-wife team specializing in Native American figurative pottery. The set is available at the Heard Museum. • Nativity sets often reflect the culture of the region in which they were crafted. This set, from Gail Fawcett’s collection, features Mary and Joseph in ethnic garb and is made of wood and straw. Each piece is connected to the stand, and the typical manger that holds Jesus has been replaced with a bedding structure indigenous to the region.

Each year, it takes Eager several weeks to get the nacimiento ready for the posada, a Latin American tradition of re-enacting Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging in Bethlehem.

“The procession through the neighborhood ends in my garage, and we unveil the nacimiento,” Eagar says. “Creating this is a labor of love. I see how people respond to it, and I feel as if I have gifted them with the essence of Christmas: wonder and delight.”

Nativity sets come in a variety of styles and configurations. This Modern nativity set is from Nambé and features a kneeling Virgin Mary, Joseph standing (both of their heads are bowed) and baby Jesus lying in the crib. Designed by Todd Weber, the set is sand-cast from Nambé’s signature metal alloy and is from Gail Fawcett’s personal collection.
Fr. Eagar is a member of Friends of the Crèche, an organization dedicated to furthering its tradition. The group offers the following advice on caring for nativity scenes.

1. Store your crèches in plastic milk crate containers. These are easy to transport, and you will be amazed at how many crates you can stack in a small space. For added efficiency, use a laundry tag to mark the crate to identify the contents.

2. Line the bottom and sides of the storage crate with wads of tissue paper or shredded newspaper to absorb shock—even better, use bubble wrap, and don’t over-pack. Plastic peanuts can be troublesome, he adds, but you can make them less “clinging” by first putting them in a paper bag and spraying them with a laundry product intended to remove static from clothes. You may wish to check with a shipping company for the latest in packing materials, he adds, as such companies might sell materials for home use.

3. Wrap each crèche figure individually before storing. Use various sizes of tissue paper or bubble wrap you have cut yourself, or, better still, use bubble wrap bags.

4. Dust crèche figures with an old-fashioned men’s shaving brush. For those hard-to-reach areas, use a spray can of “Enviro-Duster,” “Office Duster 3” or similar product for spray-dusting auto, home and office equipment. You can usually find the products in computer or business equipment stores.

5. Worried about guests accidentally knocking over and breaking one of your crèche figures? Affix the figures to the surface by using the clear gel used by museums, which can be found at The Container Store.

Antique Trove, Nambé, Meza’s in Art, Merchant Square Antique Marketplace, Heard Museum, La Buhardilla.
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