Each year, just after Thanksgiving, many of us turn into tourists in our own town. We check out the lights at the Gallivan Center, gawk at windows outside the ZCMI Center and stroll through the magic of Temple Square decked out with thousands of sparkling lights. Some years we wait, stamping our feet in the bitter cold, for the recorded voice and spotlighted figures to play out the story of the Nativity—sometimes from the beginning.
Then what? A short walk across the street to the Church Museum of History and Art offers a chance to get warm while viewing an exhibition of smaller versions of the “Christmas Creche” from cultures around the world. It’s an international holiday connection to some of the rest of the planet.
The creche display changes from year to year, as the museum acquires or borrows new examples. Curator Gloria Scovill expects to include about 30 Nativities this year and says she designs the exhibit so the pieces complement or contrast each other. “For example, we have two creches from Ecuador. One is of carved wood, very finely crafted. The other piece is made from marzipan [a paste of ground almonds and sugar]. They make a good contrast in two types of folk art,” Scovill said.
Three creches from Africa will be displayed in close proximity to one another. “We have works from Zaire, Nigeria and Ghana, all done by Mormon artists. They are all wood carvings, but there are differences in the carving styles of the countries they come from,” Scovill explained. As folk art, the creches “are universal in theme, but you see differences in the various cultures where they originate,” she said. “We are borrowing two new sets: a large ironwood carving from Zambia and another from Slovenia. They are exquisite examples of wood carvings from those two areas of the world.” Other highlights include a retablo, or creche in a box, by noted Peruvian artist Jeronimo Lozano; a scene from Haiti featuring a coconut shell as a manger; one from Tahiti woven from palm fronds; one from the Chochiti Pueblo Indians; and a spectacular creche, on loan from Jeff Johnson (who collects Nativity scenes), of black Santa Clara pottery.
The exhibition will also include some textile creches that will hang on the wall. A local artist made one in felt—“a child’s view,” Scovill said. An African batik from Sierra Leone and a Peruvian picture cloth with stuffed dolls attached to the background also will be displayed.
Richard Oman, curator of acquisitions for the museum, has his own special favorites in the exhibition. One is in the style of the Plains Indians. Instead of a stable there is a teepee; Mary and Joseph are Sioux, Oman said. For the wise men, the Magi, the artist picked three spiritual leaders, or shamans: an Iroquois, a Cheyenne and a Navajo. Each brings a gift indigenous to his culture. The Iroquois brings moccasins, the Cheyenne a beaded blanket and the Navajo shaman carries a basket and a rug. “You can tell the tribe from the costume,” Oman said. “The angels above are dressed in white buckskins with long fringes. The traditional dove is an eagle. And the usual animals are a deer, coyote and buffalo.”
Oman and Scovill wax lyrical about a Swedish creche they acquired last year. It was made by a Swede who graduated from BYU but lives in the Dalarna province of Sweden, a renowned center for folk art. She researched glazes extensively and made a creche in a tradition of Swedish painting that dates back to the 18th century. Oman said that in order to pass the long winters, farmers would paint on interior walls of their houses. “Often these would be Bible stories [the Swedes converted to Christianity from paganism in the 14th century], but with characters dressed as though they were 18th-century peasants. This woman took a tradition that had only existed as painting and turned it into three-dimensional sculpture. The Swedish national museum wants a copy of it,” Oman said.
Another prized acquisition is a fired-brownware Native American scene by Navajo artist Harrison Begay Jr. The individual pieces reflect the colors and ceramic methods of New Mexico where Begay creates pottery in the Diné style of his wife’s family, according to a press release.
There are many creche exhibitions throughout the country at this time of year, but Oman believes his museum’s is distinguished by scale (some pieces are a foot high), its world-class quality and the fact that many creches are commissioned and one of a kind. He believes that seeing this multicultural exhibit will increase the viewer’s perspective: “You are connecting to people all over the earth,” he said.
All the while knowing there’s no place quite like home for the holidays.
CHRISTMAS CRECHE EXHIBIT