World Nativities and a Century of Santa: Two Christmas Exhibitions at Glencairn

Glencairn Museum News | Number 11, 2014

A 16th-Century Flemish Nativity

For the first time this year Glencairn is offering not one, but two exhibitions for the Christmas season. Both exhibitions open on Friday, November 28 (“Black Friday”), and run through Sunday, January 11.

 

Figure 1: Glencairn’s vintage Christmas tree ornaments and Christmas village decorations were donated in 2011 by Brother Bob Reinke. Brother Bob, whose special love of Christmas has earned him the nickname “Brother Christmas,” joined the Brothers of the Poor of St. Francis in 1958. The Nativity scene beneath the tree this year was handmade in the 1930s by a family in eastern Germany, and was part of the village scene beneath their Christmas tree. The operating 1950s Lionel toy train was donated by Louise Chardos of Hoboken, New Jersey. Her brothers Jim, Steve and Hank collected the train and accessories as boys, setting them up annually beneath the family’s Christmas tree.

 

This is the sixth year of World Nativities, Glencairn’s annual exhibition of three-dimensional Nativity scenes. For many Christians the Nativity scene, illustrating the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, is an important symbol of their personal religious faith. The scene of the Holy Family surrounded by animals, shepherds, and wise men is instantly recognized by people all over the world, and provides a compelling visual focus during the Christmas season.

 

Figure 2: This Holy Family was carved by Sepp Kals, an academically trained sculptor from Kirchberg in Tirol, Austria. Kals also designed and carved sculptures for several church altars. These Nativity figures were given as Christmas presents by Arthur Compton and his wife to each other. The base of Joseph is inscribed, “to Arthur Compton from Betty Xmas 1953,” and the base of Mary is inscribed, “to Betty Compton from Arthur Xmas 1953.” Arthur was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1927. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and was a key figure in the Manhattan Project.

 
 

Figure 3: The figures and stable in this Nativity from the Republic of Uganda were made from wire frames wrapped with dried banana leaves. Mary and Joseph have their hands folded in prayer. The kneeling wise men present their gifts to the Christ Child.

 

There are more than two billion Christians, and in many parts of the world artists have adapted the Nativity scene to represent their own national, regional, and local cultures. This year Glencairn is exhibiting 40 sets from 25 different countries: Argentina, Austria, Brazil, China, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, England, Ethiopia, Germany, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Madagascar, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, Spain, Uganda, the USA and Zimbabwe.

 

Figure 4: In the 1930s in Spain, Jose Puig began a company that has become famous for its Nativity figures. Belenes Puig S.L. is the official company name (belenes is the Spanish word for Bethlehem, and is usually translated as Nativity). The company is still family owned, and the third generation is now involved in the operation of the business. The family oversees all decisions involving the design and painting of the figures. The figures are handcrafted from clay molds, painted, and then dressed with fabrics that are stiffened. The Puig Nativity figures have been influenced by an elaborate Nativity created by Francisco Salzillo in the 18th century.

 
 

Figure 5: This Nativity was collected in the village of Genting, Central Java, Indonesia. It was made by Markus and his wife Niniek, who pastor a Christian congregation in the village. They have five children, including one set of twins, and make Nativities to help support the family. Bamboo Nativities of this type have been made in the region since at least the 1960s. This Nativity includes a stable, Star of Bethlehem, the Holy Family, two shepherds with sheep, an ox, a camel, and three wise men. Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child all have haloes. The round hollow form of bamboo canes has been creatively adapted by the artist to make the various figures.

 

Traditionally a Nativity scene combines images from several different accounts of the story of the birth of Christ as told in the Bible. For instance, most Nativities include both the Magi (Wise Men) and the shepherds. However, the story of the Magi is told only in the Gospel of Matthew, and the story of the shepherds is told only in the Gospel of Luke. Most scenes include the Holy Family and the manger, but often there is not as much visual detail in the biblical accounts as the artist might like, so additional imagery is added. Sometimes the extra visual elements come from non-biblical texts produced by early Christian writers (such as the ox and donkey at the manger), but artisans often introduce innovations of their own.

 

Figure 6: Karen Loccisano and R. Michael Palan, a husband-and-wife team of professional artists from Westchester County, New York, have been working on this 16th-century Flemish Nativity over the past year. Visitors to Glencairn’s World Nativities exhibition in 2013 may also remember their highly detailed American Presepio Nativity scene.

 

The Flemish Nativity, created over the past year by Karen Loccisano and R. Michael Palan, is making its first public appearance at Glencairn as a “work in progress” (see Figure 6 and top photo with caption). Michael crafted the architecture, furniture, and most of the details in the scene. The barn has features that are not apparent at first glance; for example, the roof has a framed structure beneath the thatch grass. Michael says, “I was so happy with the roofing structure that I really didn’t want to cover it. This project was an opportunity to work on a natural setting with grass, rocks, trees and dirt. It's really a great joy to learn about how these things in nature work and to reproduce a believable miniature version of them. They are never really finished and are always subject to change. At some point, and probably with the same reluctance of covering the structure of the thatched roof with grass, we plan to cover the whole scene in with a dusting of snow.”

 

Figure 7: Karen Loccisano sculpted and dressed the human figures and also made the animals in the Flemish Nativity.

 

Karen sculpted and dressed the human figures, and also made the animals in the scene (Figure 7). “Karen looked at artwork of the Madonna and Child by various Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painters such as Hans Memling, Jan van Eyck and Pieter Bruegel. The most striking feature is Mary’s long blond hair. At this point there are just a few farm animals and other characters in the scene. Our vision is a procession of kings, shepherds, and townspeople, all coming to visit the Christ Child.” Karen grew up in Bridgewater, New Jersey, and Michael is from Northeast Philadelphia. Professionally they have both worked as illustrators for children’s publications, including Highlights magazine for children. For the past decade they have been working together designing Christmas ornaments for Kurt S. Adler, Inc.

 

Figure 8: This large cast-stone Nativity was purchased by Antonio Morales in the 1970s from a Roman Catholic Church in Boston, Massachusetts. Each year, during the first week of December, Morales built a wooden stable for the figures on the family’s front porch. For forty years he and his sons carried the large figures—which together weigh approximately half a ton—up the stairs from the basement.

 

The large cast-stone Nativity now on exhibit in Glencairn’s north porch was purchased by Antonio Morales in the 1970s from a Roman Catholic Church in Boston, Massachusetts (Figure 8). Apparently the set was made early in the 20th century, but nothing else is known about it. Morales and his family lived in Lynn, a suburb of Boston. Each year, during the first week of December, he built a wooden stable for the figures on the family’s front porch. For forty years Morales and his sons carried the large figures—which together weigh approximately half a ton—up the stairs from the basement. Fresh straw was provided, and a spotlight was installed to shine down on the Christ Child, intended to represent the Star of Bethlehem. The display remained on the front porch until the weekend after Epiphany (January 6th), traditionally the day on which the wise men arrived bearing gifts for the Christ Child.

According to Dwayne, one of Antonio’s sons, “I am beginning to see just how much my Father always appreciated this set and how much time we spent together every year, sharing hour upon hour, talking together, laughing and putting it together for the love of the final product: ‘a picture in time’ of how the Three Kings or Wise Men, ventured following the North Star to meet Jesus, the Son of God, who had been born in a stable in Bethlehem so many miles away from them, to bring him gifts out of respect and faith that he was truly the Son of God.”

 

Figure 9: This Cajun Nativity was made by Lorraine Gendron, a self-taught folk artist who lives in the small Mississippi River town of Hahnville, Louisiana. Lorraine, who has been called “the Louisiana people’s artist,” first gained national attention in the 1980s for her Mississippi Mud dolls. Her art is now in many museums and private collections.

 

The Cajun Nativity features the baby Jesus in a pirogue (a bayou canoe), with Mary in traditional Acadian dress and Joseph holding crawfish (Figure 9). Alligators, an armadillo, and a raccoon take the place of the traditional sheep, ox, and donkey. The “wise men” include a jazz musician, a French chef, and a Louisiana Indian. The “shepherd” is a hunter with beagles. The set was made by Lorraine Gendron, a self-taught folk artist who lives in the small Mississippi River town of Hahnville, Louisiana, with her Cajun husband, Louis. Lorraine, who has been called “the Louisiana people’s artist,” first gained national attention in the 1980s for her Mississippi Mud dolls. Her art is now in many museums and private collections. She was invited to create an Easter egg for President and Mrs. Reagan (now in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution), and a Christmas ornament for the White House Christmas tree during the term of President George W. Bush.

 

Figure 10: The Cajun Nativity features the baby Jesus in a pirogue (a bayou canoe), with Mary in traditional Acadian dress and Joseph holding crawfish.

 

According to Lorraine, “I’m a Christian, and I noticed that people around the world make Nativity scenes with elements from their own local cultures. So I put local elements into my Nativity. If Jesus were born Cajun, I think this is what the Nativity would look like! I was worried that people would think this was sacrilegious, but the first order I received was from a Baptist minister, and the second was from a Catholic priest.” Lorraine prays as she works, and is active in her local church.

As in past years, the popular “Seek and Find” activity (including prizes) will be provided for all children who visit Glencairn’s World Nativities exhibition.

 

Figure 11: A Century of Santa: Images of Santa Claus in the 1800s: East wall of the exhibition.

 

A Century of Santa: Images of Santa Claus in the 1800s presents the early history of Santa Claus in America, using rare magazine illustrations, store advertising, and children’s storybooks from the collection of the National Christmas Center and Museum in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Beginning with early Christmas gift-givers such as St. Nicholas, the Christkindl (the Christ Child), the Belsnickel (who handed out gifts to good children but used a switch on naughty children), and Philadelphia’s own Kriss Kringle, the exhibition traces the visual evolution of Santa throughout the 19th century. By the century’s close, St. Nicholas (by this time also known as Old Saint Nick), Kriss Kringle, and Santa Claus had, for many people, merged into the same jolly gift-giver. The name and customs of the Christmas gift-giver were determined by regional, local, and church traditions, and also by the preferences of individual families.

 

Figure 12: A Century of Santa: Images of Santa Claus in the 1800s: West wall of the exhibition.

 

A Century of Santa, in addition to tracing the early evolution of the Christmas gift-giver in America, also presents dozens of examples of 19th-century Santa images organized by theme, including illustrations of Santa for Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem, “The Night Before Christmas”; Santa’s various modes of transportation (not just reindeer!); attempts by children to “capture” Santa; Santa in children’s books; and the appropriation of Santa’s image by adults for both political and commercial purposes.

 

Figure 13: During the second half of the 19th century, America’s growing advertising industry adopted Santa Claus as a “spokesman” for a wide variety of products and services. Santa appeared on the covers of souvenir holiday booklets given away by stores and on colorful “trade cards” included with purchases. Trade cards were purchased by merchants in bulk, and then overprinted with the name and address of the business, or a specific product, on the front. Trade cards were given to customers throughout the year, but the Christmas-themed cards were the most popular. Many Victorian families cherished them and preserved them in special albums.

 

In 1897 Virginia O’Hanlon, an 8-year-old girl who lived in Manhattan with her parents, wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Sun (Figure 14):

“Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says ‘If you see it in the Sun it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?”

 

Figure 14: In 1897 Virginia O’Hanlon, an 8-year-old girl, wrote her famous letter about Santa Claus to the editor of the New York Sun. In 1934 Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas, now a school-teacher, wrote a second letter, this time published by Grosset & Dunlap in a book titled, Is There a Santa Claus? In her essay, addressed to the “Children of Yesterday and Today,” she makes this plea: “I want so much that all little children believe in Santa Claus, for I understand how essential a belief in Santa Claus, and in fairies too, is to happy childhood.”

 

Francis P. Church, a career journalist and the son of a Baptist minister, responded to Virginia’s question in a short essay titled, “Is there a Santa Claus?” Less than 500 words long, it has become one of the most reprinted editorials in history, and is perhaps the most influential piece ever written on the “spiritual significance” of Santa Claus:

“Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.”

Visitors to Glencairn’s exhibition may take home a free copy of Virginia’s letter and Francis Church’s famous response.

Ed Gyllenhaal, curator of Glencairn Museum since 1987, and his wife Kirsten, a museum researcher at Glencairn, are co-curators of the World Nativities exhibition. Kathleen Glenn Pitcairn, an artisan who lives in Bryn Athyn, has provided artistic settings for nearly all of the Nativities. Jim Morrison, founder and historian of the National Christmas Center and Museum in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, has co-curated A Century of Santa: Images of Santa Claus in the 1800s together with Ed Gyllenhaal. Nearly all of the material in the Century of Santa exhibition is on loan from the Center.

More information about Glencairn Museum’s FREE (donations welcome) World Nativities and A Century of Santa: Images of Santa Claus in the 1800s exhibitions, is available here.

Information about our popular guided “Christmas in the Castle” tour is here.

Glencairn has created an online tour to provide visitors to our World Nativities exhibition with additional cultural and art historical information: “Do You See What I See: Imagery in Nativity Scenes.”

A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.