National nativities

The First Noel crèche exhibit tells one story in many languages
November 30, 2005

Part of the wonder of the Christmas story is that it is as vast as it is simple – a piece of magic that Lori Amos, curator of Washington National Cathedral’s annual crèche exhibit in Washington, D.C., has discovered anew each year.

Sixteen years ago, as Amos helped former cathedral docent and private collector Beulah Sommers assemble the first exhibit in the cathedral’s Rare Book Library, she began to realize how many ways there are to tell one story.

“I grew up with a very traditional nativity scene and had no idea they could be so different,” she said, recalling her first encounter with Sommers’ extensive collection. “Everything I unpacked was just the most amazing thing I’d ever seen.”

Now the 650-plus crèches in the cathedral’s permanent collection – the greater part of which Sommers donated in 1998 – have become old friends, Amos said.

The collection started by accident, when Sommers, who was training to be a docent at the National Gallery of Art, was asked to give a talk on the three Wise Men. To calm her nerves, she thought she’d give herself something to do with her hands, so she purchased a nativity set to use as a visual aid. And so it began.

“She bought a few more, and she bought a few more, and her husband started to buy them for her, and her friends started to buy them for her, and everyone started to buy them for her,” Amos said.

Same story, different cultures

And when the collection outgrew her home in Silver Spring, Md., what better place to display her crèches from all over the world than the cathedral, which describes itself as a house of prayer for all people?

While Sommers’ collection is the bedrock of the exhibit, Amos has added numerous other pieces. The cathedral has received still more as gifts and memorials. Each scene tells the same story, but that’s where the similarities end.

“There are scenes that are made from plastic,” Amos said. “There are scenes that are made from glass. There are scenes that are made from metal. There are scenes that are made from straw, porcelain, terra cotta, clay – almost everything imaginable.” There’s a set from Stratford, Va., made from corn husks and a set made from the ash of Mount St. Helen’s. There’s a Peruvian set made of carved individual gourds; a woven-cotton set from Bolivia made by the physically handicapped; and a set fashioned by children from Kenya’s Massai tribe from a mixture of mud and animal dung.

Beyond the myriad materials, the crèches depict diverse cultures. Condors fly over the manger instead of angels in one Bolivian scene. In a diorama from Alaska, the three kings arrive by kayak and dogsled, bearing gifts of salmon and furs.

Widespread appeal

Amos maintains an index of all the crèches and has researched each set, said Luann Vaky, the cathedral’s coordinator of visitor programs. She also sets up the exhibit each year.

“She does the planning, and her husband comes in and helps her,” Vaky said. “They have built platforms. They have come up with ideas. They have built things in their home and brought them in on the top of their car.”

The collection is divided roughly into thirds. One part is displayed each year, in rotation. “We didn’t want to fall into the trap of putting out our favorites, because there are things that speak to people in such different ways,” Amos said. “The Christmas story itself is so accessible and is so woven into our culture – I think it’s good to see that story through the eyes of another culture.”

On the flip side, foreign visitors often find a little bit of home in the exhibit, she said, telling of the time she saw a South American woman crying over one of the crèches. “It came from a village right down the road from where she grew up, and she hadn’t been back there for 30 years.”

Since its inception, the exhibit has attracted thousands of people each year – as many as 300 visitors in a day, Vaky said. “I don’t know if it brings people to the cathedral specifically to worship, but it gives an awareness that the cathedral is there and that this is a worshipping place and that we are celebrating something,” Vaky said. “We are celebrating the birth of the Christ child: Jesus is the reason for the season.”

The First Noel, Washington National Cathedral’s annual crèche exhibit, will be displayed through Jan. 8 in the cathedral’s Rare Book Library Exhibit Room. (Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m.) Family Days at the crèche exhibit offer children ages 4 to 8 and their families a change to tour the exhibit, read a seasonal story and make a craft to take home. (Dec. 21, 22, 27 and 28 from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are accepted.)

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