In the Christian tradition, a nativity scene (also known as a manger scene, crib, crèche, or in Italian presepio or presepe) is a special exhibition of art objects representing the birth of Jesus. The word creche comes from the Old French cresche (13century) meaning “crib, manger, stall.”

The first nativity display on record is credited to St. Francis of Assisi. In 1223, he called people to a nearby cave where the villagers found a baby in a feeding trough with a few animals surrounding it. St. Francis used the scene as a sermon illustration. The idea caught on, and soon every church in Christendom featured a living nativity during the Christmas season.

The living nativity display was eventually replaced with carved statues which were more permanent. By the 15th century, smaller creches became part of family worship in the home. Every year, the Pope blesses the creches that children bring from their homes at special event held in St. Peter’s square.

As the custom of smaller creches spread, each culture began to add their own interpretations and craftsmanship to nativity displays. An excellent website to explore the amazing art of creches around the world is www.worldnativity.com

Here are a few unique creches that reflect the culture, materials and skills of local artists and craftspeople:

Haiti:


Artisans in this very poorest country in the Western Hemisphere use discarded 55 gallon oil drums, which they clean and flatten to create colourful nativity scenes. Notice that the infant Jesus is swinging in a hammock that’s shaded with palms and banana trees. The nativity scene is placed on a beach, with a boat nearby. This may be a work done by an artist belonging to Comite Artisanal Haitien, a non-profit marketing cooperative representing more than 160 individual Haitian artisans and groups.

Taiwan:


This bamboo Nativity set was produced by the renowned Potzu studios in Taiwan. The set was probably made between 1960 and 1980. Despite the unique hardness and roundness of bamboo reeds, the figures have flowing robes and hands folded in praise.

Peru:


Many art and craft groups in Peru work with Fair Trade distributors in North America, and creches are a popular product in Fair Trade outlet shops such as Ten Thousand Villages. This creche finds the Holy Family on the roof of a bus because there was no room inside the bus, a situation familiar with anyone who has travelled in that country. Mirroring the Biblical narrative of Jesus who was born in a stable because there was no room in the inn makes this tiny piece extra-special.

Nigeria:


These small figures, originating in the interior of Nigeria, were hand-carved using thorns from the silk cotton tree. The centuries-old folk art of this region of Africa specializes in rough-hewn wood crafts and textiles. Tree thorn carvings were an art form developed in the 30s in a government program to provide work for impoverished citizens. The figures are very light, similar to cork. Some tree thorn nativities, numbering over 80 pieces, display a whole village coming to see the Christ child.

Mexico:


The Tarahumara indigenous people live in the Copper Canyon area of Mexico. Their spiritual beliefs are a mixture of old ways and Christianity. This tiny piece – about 2 inches across – shows Mary, Joseph and Jesus sitting in a woven shelter which resembles the burden baskets that are tied to burros to carry their possessions when they travel.

Nativity: Creches of the World will display some of these sets at Comox Valley Presbyterian Church Dec. 7 & 8. 

Jessie Schut

Comox Valley Presbyterian Church