Monday, December 19, 2011

No Room at the Inn

QUESTION: My grandfather left me a beautiful creche which he said his father brought over from Germany in the late 19th century. Can you tell me anything about this and if it is, in fact, German?

ANSWER: You, indeed, have a German creche. From its design, I’d say it dates from the 1890s, possibly a bit before. During the 17th century, Nativity scenes, promoted by the Capuchin, Jesuit and Franciscan orders, gained in popularity as a way for common people to express their joy during the Christmas season.

The most popular form is the crèche, a word meaning "manger" or "crib" in French. Originally carved from wood, today these beautiful figures can also be made of   ceramic, glass, straw, fabric, or even plastic, then and painted. A crèche usually depicts the entire Nativity scene—the manger, star, angels, shepherds, kings and the Holy Family. Most makers construct them on a miniature scale, although some church crèches can be almost life-sized. Crèches originated in Europe with the Italian presepio which used small carved figures in the 18th century. By then, three centers of creche culture had emerged—Naples, Italy; Provence, France; and Bavaria in southern Germany.

Historians generally credit St. Francis of Assisi with popularizing the Nativity scene.
Supposedly, a rich man, Giovanni Vellita, approached St. Francis in December, 1223, asking how he could serve God. St. Francis told him to build a simple, little stable just outside Assisi in the cave at Greccio. During the 13th century, people celebrated Christmas as a purely religious holiday, so many of the activities associated with it occurred in churches. Since common workers weren’t given much of a place in these celebrations, St. Francis came up with the idea to give them a chance to celebrate.

As the story goes, as midnight approached that Christmas Eve, a great procession wound its way out of Assisi and up the hill to Greccio. Everyone came carrying candles to this new manger they had built for the Holy Child. They celebrated mass that night, surrounded by an ox and a donkey and by the people of Assisi, all playing the parts of the shepherds and folk of Bethlehem. From Italy, the idea spread north across the Alps, and finally came to the U.S. with German settlers.

Today’s creche makers model their pieces after the elaborate Italian and German ones of the 17th  century. Creches or Nativity sets can be made from a variety of materials. The characters can be carved from wood, formed from wax, papier-mache, or clay, or hand painted on cardboard. They stand in or in front of buildings, ranging from Alpine stables and guest houses to romantic Roman ruins. Others have oriental style structures with minarets and domes.

But the best—elaborate and intricately carved figures of wood—came from Bavaria.
Their creators stained them with paint to make them lifelike. German creches , often called krippen, can also be made of cast metal, cast painted plaster, cardboard with painted or printed artwork, turned wood or clay. Each Christmas, in scenes made up of rocks, branches, evergreens and moss collected in the woods by the family’s children just before the holiday, the krippe is reborn. Christmas morning finds these scenes around the base of the family’s Christmas tree in what’s called a putz or tree yard.

Among collectible creches, those hardest to find today are those predating World War II.  Adolf Hitler had many of the German molds for creche figures destroyed. At the time, Germany was the premiere maker of creches. So what you have is a real treasure, not only for its value—a similar one sold for close to $1,000 at previous auction and just one animal is going for $95 currently on eBay—but also for its place in history.

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