America’s favorite folk art form

Nativity crèche at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Rochester, NY. This follows the German custom of not placing the Christ Child in place until Christmas. I confess to secretly plotting for years with my friend Judie to steal this and resurrect it on our Town Triangle on a Friday night, in the belief that nobody could call to complain until after sundown on Saturday. But my respect for the crèche’s creator, Al Bullwinkle, always stays my hand.
Every November the United States schedules a ruckus over removing religious symbols from our public spaces. Despite that, the Nativity crèche remains our favorite folk art form, at least now that those plywood cutouts of gardener’s butts are passé.
St. Francis instituting the crèche at Greccio, painted by Giotto sometime around 1300.
St. Francis of Assisi is generally credited with creating the first Nativity scene. It was 1223, and he was attempting to center Christmas on the worship of Christ rather than on materialism and gift giving. It was a Living Nativity, and he staged it in a cave. Not only did he not make much headway against crass commercialism, the next year the Church recorded the first fight over who got to play the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The Metropolitan Museum has a magnificent 18th century Neapolitan crèche set, which changes every year as they add new pieces.
The first sculpted Italian terra cotta Nativity sets were created shortly after that, probably because they couldn’t talk back. As crèches were scaled down to fit in homes, their construction shifted to include wood, wax, and plaster. Like other icons, many were forms of tow and wire with beautifully-sculpted faces and hands, dressed in lovely silk clothing. The custom reached its zenith in 18th century Naples. The Metropolitan Museum has an outstanding collection of these crèche figures.
Today there are plastic Fontanini sets from Italy, plaster crèches from Bavaria, Kraków szopka from Poland, carved-wood sets from South America, paper nativities—in short the crèche tradition has as many variations as the world has cultures.  Nobody loves them more than Americans, where we translate the Holy Family into Peanuts™ characters and turn nativity sets into collectibles that we then bid up into dazzling prices in our other art form, the marketplace.
Polish nativity set, or Kraków szopka. I have a beautiful polychrome nativity set, one made of pressed clay by my kids, and a mismatched plaster set made by my sister and brother and me in Sunday school almost fifty years ago. All are equally precious to me.
I live in a place whose town triangle in December is graced not by a crèche, but by a sewer-pipe menorah. Nativity crèches have great currency even here. I get great joy from peeking at them through lighted windows this time of year.
The blessings of the season be with you!

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