Since the Blessed Michael McGivney Pilgrimage Center in New Haven, Connecticut, first opened 20-plus years ago as the Knights of Columbus Museum, people have eagerly awaited the crèche exhibits and Nativity scenes from around the world on an almost annual basis.
This collection of nearly 50 Nativities from around the world is titled “Christmas in the Castle.” On loan from the Glencairn Museum of religious art and history in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, which has featured the show annually, the sets from various places start with the figures of the Wise Men from the Pitcairn family’s own set. The museum is the former home of the Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn family and designed like a medieval manor house. Enlarged photos from the family’s Christmas celebrations throughout the exhibit capture the manor’s ambience and elegance.
The show’s splendid setting: Romanesque and early Gothic rooms flowing one into another.
These three galleries feature “stonework” walls, pillars and arches to reflect the original manor house, which is now the museum.
Raymond Pitcairn’s love for the story of the Nativity led to the vast collection, beginning with the Magi. In white robes, these painted figures of plaster of paris and their colorful camels date to about 1925. Nearby, another more recent crèche offers a unique setting — Bryn Athyn Cathedral, which Pitcairn designed and the family constructed. The newborn Christ Child, Mary and Joseph are placed in the church sanctuary and enveloped in a glowing blue-lavender light, just like that found in the cathedral itself. All the depictions of the people, including those coming to adore the Child, are original Heidi figures carved in the Italian Alps by a family company using traditional highly detailed woodcarving and painting techniques with modern processing techniques for these masterful pieces of art.
One after the other, the crèches offer their own particular interpretation of the Nativity. For example, the medium-sized 2007 Neapolitan example made in Naples reproduces those made in the Renaissance. Figures wear handmade clothing — with one shepherd shown atop the stable fast asleep.
Shapes and sizes abound. From Germany, there is the elaborate and colorful “Nativity Pyramid” about four-feet high and with four tiers. Shaped like a Christmas tree with a propeller on top, a shepherd and sheep occupy the top tier, while elsewhere angel musicians serenade the Holy Family. The bottom tier spans the centuries to show Santa in his sleigh making his way through evergreen trees. France provided the heritage for the crèche from Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive in Québec, Canada. Called Santons for “little saints,” the Québécois populace of the scene mirrors the works of that region with figures from a farmer to a lumberjack. Familiar figures have their place too; one figure represents St. André Bessette, whose feast is Jan. 6, and another the explorer Samuel de Champlain.
From thousands of miles away, the crèche from the Slovak Republic is amazing in its simplicity, depth and choice of materials.
Though the simple faces are not detailed, all the figures have a pleasant, joyful feeling about them. They are made of corn husks and in the manner of folk artists.
A three-tiered scene obviously inspired by Germans who were living in the area again relies on the “local villagers” to populate a depiction from the Czech Republic. The Nativity takes place on the ground level, while tiers above present the townspeople and their occupations.
The crèche from Kazakhstan is a predominately white scene, with red and green trim; every figure is made of wool felt and wears native dress.
The Nativity from Nepal is carved of wood. Under the native trees, Mary is depicted kneeling and the Joseph figure stands, as both look adoringly at the Baby Jesus. Unusually, the entire scene is one color — a deep red. Another crèche from the same country features small, simple figures of the Holy Family and an angel. Present there is one animal — a yak — common to the South Asia locale.
Nearby is a Nativity scene from Indonesia, featuring Joseph, Mary, Jesus and the Three Kings wearing colorful, native dress.
As the show progresses, the center gallery has an added surprise: reproductions of the stained-glass windows that Pitcairn had artists make for the Bryn Athyn Cathedral. Medieval in style and reflecting elements from Chartres Cathedral, the lancet windows lining the walls depict, among others, David, Aaron, Saul, Solomon, Melchizedek, the Annunciation, the Virgin Mary and Child, and John. These reproductions also become a backdrop for more crèches. A grand rendition comes from the Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil. Among the material used for the detailed setting are wool and corn husks, but the real eye-catcher revolves around the area’s gaucho culture. There is a gaucho riding a horse and spinning a lasso, as if to perform for the Holy Family. Joseph holds a container of a South American herbal tea. The Magi’s gifts are part of gaucho culture, too, including a wild turkey. In addition, it comes complete with additional scenes, including a portrayal of the Flight Into Egypt.
The wooden crèche from Guatemala appears with figures wearing native clothing brilliantly colored and lavish with bright floral designs — and the Christ Child’s manger is shaped like a rooster. It might symbolize the “Mass of the Rooster,” a midnight Mass that many Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries celebrate. For them, legend has it that a rooster crowed at midnight to announce that Baby Jesus was born.
Vivid, too, is the crèche from Nicaragua, carved of cedar and polychromed. The Three Kings look like they are wearing bishops’ mitres. This crèche attests to the way Nativities showcase local flavor, from the dress to the setting and even animals that are familiar to the locale. And an African buffalo, lion, giraffe, elephant and rhinoceros are the “visitors” to the Holy Family in a crèche from Malawi.
Crèches from Mexico are very colorful, too, including one with whimsical figures such as the Three Kings, depicted riding donkeys.
Hailing from Lesotho in South Africa, whose population is more than 95% Christian, nearly half of those Catholic, is a scene made of materials such as sand, cloth and cardboard; it is best viewed from the top down because the stable appears to be a hat box with the lid open and resembles the kind of grass hat that is Lesotho’s national symbol. A 2019 crèche from New Mexico was carved by Leonardo Salazar, who is among the state’s premiere carvers of saints. The Nativity is set under a Southwestern-style roof, and all figures are made of unadorned aspen wood.
Another surprise is an uncommon interpretation from Mexico that has the stable, encircled by flowers, overseen by God the Father above it and the sun and moon on either side of him.
Among the family-made crèches is one from the Ukraine, completed this year by the Kravchenko family who specialize in Christian carvings. A description of the scene notes that Volodymyr, the father, considers Nativity scenes to be his favorite work. Especially with the country’s current “grief, tears, and sorrow” with the war, he believes “it is important that the carving gives joy, gives warmth.”
More crèches on display come from the Knights’ own collection, many of them the gift of Father Timothy Goldrick, a retired priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, a frequent traveler and collector of crèches who speaks on the crèche’s theology/history.
Overall, “Christmas in the Castle” underscores how Christ came for all — and wishes all to recognize him as the Prince of Peace.
“Christmas in the Castle” runs through Feb. 5.