Christmas Nativity scenes reveal universality of Christmas
December 19, 2019
Making God approachable.
That’s what Michaela Johnson, a member of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Omaha, enjoys about Christmas crèches.
As a crèche enthusiast, along with her roommate, Mary Ann Deak, also a member of St. Vincent de Paul, she can speak from experience. They have some 25 such displays in their home.
Johnson and Deak spoke to the Catholic Voice Dec. 13 while viewing more than 100 crèches (nativity scenes), displayed at the Saint Benedict Center in Schuyler from Dec. 1-16 and resuming Jan. 2-6.
“I’ve seen displays before, but I haven’t seen one that has so many tremendously beautiful nativity scenes,” Johnson said.
“I’m always intrigued by the expressions on the faces,” said Deak.
The exhibit, in its 20th year, is arranged by Benedictine Father Volker Futter, subprior of the Christ the King Priory in Schuyler.
“Christmas is the most important celebration after Easter,” he said.
“We’re now in the time of shopping and buying, so we can forget the most important happening at Christmas – the miracle of Christ’s birth – and so we have to put the focus on what is the real meaning of Christmas, and that’s why we put up the nativity scenes,” he said.
Pope Francis also points to the significance of the crèche in his apostolic letter “Admirabile Signum” (“On the Meaning and Importance of the Nativity Scene”), issued Dec. 1, the First Sunday of Advent.
“Wherever it is, and whatever form it takes, the Christmas crèche speaks to us of the love of God, the God who became a child in order to make us know how close he is to every man, woman and child, regardless of their condition,” he wrote.
The pope encourages the faithful to continue “the beautiful family tradition of preparing the nativity scene in the days before Christmas.”
“As children, we learn from our parents and grandparents to carry on this joyful tradition, which encapsulates a wealth of popular piety. It is my hope that this custom will never be lost and that, wherever it has fallen into disuse, it can be rediscovered and revived,” he said in his letter.
Johnson enjoys carrying on that tradition for her young cousins, who like to handle and play with the figurines when they visit.
“When they play with it, it makes God approachable. It isn’t just over there on an altar, they can play with it and look at it.
“I think, for kids, it instills that sense that … God wants to be close to us,” Johnson said.
Viewing the exhibit at the Saint Benedict Center, Johnson noted the diversity of the crèches on display.
“I like being able to see the different countries and how they represent it (the birth of Christ),” she said. “I just love seeing this story told in different ways.”
For example, a crèche from Korea includes two women dancing, she said. “It’s also evoking the culture in which they’re showing the birth of Christ. It lives out how those people take the story and view it.”
Even with the cultural differences, Johnson was impressed with the way the scene of Christ’s birth “binds us all together.”
“Although we may see it differently, we know the importance of it and it helps to connect you with the rest of the world, celebrating at the same time,” she said.
“It’s like when I went to ArchOmaha Unite (the archdiocese-wide celebration of unity in Omaha last June 8) and saw all the different parishes represented and how each one is different,” she said. “It gives you that same sense of how there’s this connectedness with everybody.”
Father Volker said the priory has acquired a wide variety of crèches over the years from many of the 23 countries where his order has missions, such as Peru, Tanzania, Korea, China, Malawi and others.
As a mission procurator for 17 years, he was in contact with other missions, and acquired most of the crèches in the collection.
“Altogether we have about 300 creches,” he said. “I try to every year get out a few. We want to show that the nativity scenes are important, not only in America, but all over the world.”
He also noted the different crafts represented – wood carvings in olive wood from the Holy Land and in ebony, alabaster, ceramics, tapestries, and many other forms, ranging in size from tiny to 4 feet tall.
Father Volker enjoys the variety represented by the extensive collection, “to see that Christmas is … for everybody all over the world – that Christ is born for each one of us.”
WANT TO GO?
What: Christmas crèche exhibit
Where: Saint Benedict Center, 1126 Road I, Schuyler, Nebraska
When: Jan. 2-6, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.