Christmas Traditions and World Nativities: Two Exhibitions at Glencairn Museum

Number 12, 2015


Johann Maresch garden gnome Christmas tree stand.


Figure 1: This World War II Christmas Tree is decorated with American-made glass ornaments instead of the traditional hand-blown glass ornaments from Germany. In December, 1940, a little more than a year after the Blockade of Germany had begun, Life magazine observed that “the War has reached long tentacles into the coziest corners of U.S. industry, and, as a result, the U.S. this year for the first time in history will be self-sufficient in the matter of Christmas-tree ornaments.” On loan from the National Christmas Center and Museum.


Glencairn Museum’s holiday exhibitions opened on Friday, November 27 and run through Sunday, January 10, 2016. Nearly all of the objects in Christmas Traditions are on loan from the National Christmas Center and Museum in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Many originated from the personal collection of Jim Morrison, the founder and curator. According to Morrison, this museum “has been a dream of mine for at least 50 years. I wanted to preserve Christmas. I want the little children to have the magic that I had as a child.”

Christmas Traditions is co-curated by Morrison and Ed Gyllenhaal, curator of Glencairn Museum. According to Gyllenhaal, “these traditions have shown remarkable persistence. Christmas beliefs and customs have been passed down through many generations, and have survived despite tremendous obstacles, such as severe wartime conditions or religious persecution.”

The exhibition includes a World War II Christmas tree with unusual American-made glass ornaments manufactured in the 1940s. Americans had been decorating their Christmas trees with hand-blown glass ornaments from Germany since the 1890s, but the Blockade of Germany cut Americans off from their supply. In 1939 the F.W. Woolworth Company and Max Eckardt, a German immigrant who had been importing ornaments from Europe since 1907, asked the Corning Glass Company to convert a glassblowing machine for electric light bulbs into one that made glass Christmas ornaments. War-related shortages of metal, silver nitrate and other materials led to continual changes in ornament design throughout the 1940s. Late in the war, cardboard tabs replaced the metal caps and string was used to hang the ornaments.


Figure 2: During World War II the popular “silvered” ornaments, which were coated on the inside with silver nitrate to reflect light from candles and electric bulbs, were phased out as chemical plants were converted to support the war effort. American manufacturers adapted to this situation by producing translucent glass balls in various colors. A spray of tinsel was sometimes inserted into the ornament to make it sparkle. As metal shortages increased the tinsel was eliminated, and the metal caps on ornaments were replaced with cardboard tops. On loan from the National Christmas Center and Museum.


The World War II Christmas tree in the Christmas Traditions exhibition revolves on a motor-driven, musical tree stand made in the mid-1930s by A.C. Gilbert, inventor of the Erector Set. In 1918, after the United States declared war against Germany, the Council of National Defense was considering a ban on toy production in order to convert toy factories for the war effort. Gilbert argued successfully against the ban on behalf of the toy industry, and was dubbed “The Man Who Saved Christmas” by the press.

Although Christmas trees were prohibited by the Soviet Communist government beginning in 1925, people found it difficult to give up this beautiful custom. About 10 years later the Soviet state began encouraging “New Year trees.” The New Year tree in the exhibition is decorated with glass ornaments made in the Soviet Union during the 1950s and 1960s. New Year tree ornaments from this period were made in the shape of state symbols such as the hammer and sickle and the red Soviet star, symbols of national pride such as cosmonauts and orbital satellites, and Russian folk tale characters. The Soviet Union was officially dissolved in 1991, and Christmas has been a national holiday in Russia since 1992. Today most Russians observe Christmas on January 7, according to the calendar of the Russian Orthodox Church, but decorate a tree in time for New Year festivities. While it continues to be called a Novogodnaya Yolka, or New Year Tree, most people now leave the tree up to celebrate both holidays.


Figure 3: Christmas trees were prohibited by the Soviet Communist government in 1925. Throughout the Soviet era, the religious celebration of Christmas was replaced by a Festival of Winter. New Year trees were permitted beginning in 1935, and the first New Year ornaments were produced in Moscow in 1936–1937. A variety of tree ornaments were available, but due to the Marxist-Leninist doctrine of state atheism, ornaments in the shape of biblical figures or angels were not produced or sold in the Soviet Union. On loan from the National Christmas Center and Museum.


In 2009 Glencairn Museum began an ongoing initiative to collect three-dimensional Nativity scenes for our annual exhibition, World Nativities. The goal of this exhibition is to show the universal appeal of the Nativity story, and how individuals around the world seek to give it relevance by relating it to their own spiritual, intellectual, cultural, or regional environments. This year six Nativities from Glencairn’s collection are on exhibit at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Connecticut. Their exhibition is titled, Joy to the World: Crèches of Central Europe.

A Nativity scene may combine images from several different biblical accounts of the story of the birth of Christ. For example, the story of the wise men is told only in the Gospel of Matthew, and the story of the shepherds is told only in the Gospel of Luke, but many Nativity scenes include both wise men and shepherds. Nearly all Nativity scenes have the Holy Family and the manger, but additional imagery (such as the ox and donkey) is sometimes added from non-biblical texts produced by early Christian writers. In addition, artisans may introduce new elements from their own imaginations. (For more information, see Glencairn Museum’s Web resource, Do You See What I See: Imagery in Nativity Scenes.)


Figure 4: This innovative, fully-collapsible “Christmas pyramid” was recently reissued from the 1940s original by Volker and Heiko Flath, a family of toymakers in the town of Seiffen, Germany. The unassembled pyramid could fit into a small package. They were sent as a Christmas greeting from home to soldiers from Seiffen who were serving in World War II.


Figure 5: Left: Père Noël is the French equivalent of the American Santa Claus. He wears a long, hooded robe edged with white fur, and carries presents in a wicker basket like the ones traditionally used by grape harvesters. This papier-mâché figure of Père Noël, made in France around 1920, served as a candy container. Right: This St. Nicholas-shaped candy container, made in Germany around 1910, separates at the base and conceals a cylinder that held candy.


Figure 6: Glencairn’s collection of vintage Christmas tree ornaments and Christmas village decorations was gifted in 2011 by Brother Bob Reinke, a Franciscan Friar who is a pastoral associate at St. Ann’s Church in Hoboken, New Jersey. 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. St. Francis is credited with popularizing the tradition of the Nativity scene, famously staging a live Nativity in the woods near Assisi, Italy, in 1223. The 1950s Lionel steam locomotive and rolling stock were donated by Louise Chardos and her brothers.


Figure 7: These Nativity figures were made by the artist Anna Fehrle (1892–1981). The heads, hands and feet of each figure were carved from wood and then painted. Fehrle used fabric-wrapped wire to form and pose the bodies. She also clothed them and made the additional equipment. Anna Fehrle was born in the town of Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany, in 1892. Her brother was the well-known sculptor Jakob Wilhelm Fehrle. Jakob is credited with encouraging Anna to pursue wood carving. Anna established her own workshop, and exhibited regularly at the fairs in Leipzig and Frankfurt. She was known for her Nativities, dolls, and angels. On loan from the National Christmas Center and Museum.


Figure 8: This “box Nativity” was made in Austria in the late 19th century from wood, baked clay (for the figurines), cardboard and paper. Many families in the region built their own elaborate Nativity scenes in hand-made wooden boxes, and displayed them in their homes during the Christmas season. The box Nativity (kastenkrippe) was usually set up in the “Lord’s nook” (Herrgottswinkel), a corner of the main room with a crucifix and a small altar. On loan from the National Christmas Center and Museum.


Figure 9: This unique Nativity setting, made in 2015 by Navidad Nativities of Bucks County, PA, was inspired by the art and architecture of Glencairn and Bryn Athyn Cathedral. The figures were hand carved in wood and dressed in starched fabric by Original Heide, a family workshop in the Italian Alps. On loan from Navidad Nativities.


World Nativities is co-curated annually by Glencairn’s curator, Ed Gyllenhaal, and his wife, museum researcher Kirsten Hansen Gyllenhaal. According to Ed, “Glencairn collects and exhibits Nativities from around the world, and each year we also borrow examples from the collections of other institutions. This year we have a Nativity with corn husk figures from Mexico, one with a coconut stable from Hawaii, and one from Nepal with a yak instead of the traditional ox and donkey. Kathleen Glenn Pitcairn creates artistic settings for almost all of the Nativities, and this really brings the figures to life. This year we are fortunate to debut a new creation by Navidad Nativities in Bucks County, PA, which was inspired by the architecture of Glencairn and Bryn Athyn Cathedral.” (More about this Bryn Athyn-inspired Nativity may be found in the November issue of Glencairn Museum News.)


Figure 10: This Nativity was made in 1960 by Palestinian women in the Aqabat Jaber Refugee Camp. The figures are all hand made and dressed in traditional Palestinian clothing. The sheep and donkey were created by wrapping wire frames with yarn. The pieces have printed labels on the bottom: “World Y.W.C.A. Centre, Aqabat Jaber Refugee Camp, Jericho – Jordan.” The vision of the World Young Women’s Christian Association is “a fully inclusive world where justice, peace, health, human dignity, freedom and care for the environment are promoted and sustained by women’s leadership.”


Figure 11: This nine-piece Nativity was designed by Hajime Miyashita for the company Kokeshi Designs. The making of Kokeshi dolls is recognized as a traditional folk art in Japan. The figures have peaceful smiling faces, and their heads are slightly bowed in reverence for the Christ Child.


Figure 12: R. Michael Palan, a professional artist from Westchester County, New York, created this Nativity in 2015 from cork, wood, polymer clay and acrylic paint. On loan from R. Michael Palan.


For the third year in a row, Glencairn has been fortunate to exhibit an original Nativity by R. Michael Palan, a professional artist from Westchester County, New York. Visitors to Glencairn’s World Nativities exhibitions in 2013 and 2014 may remember the Neapolitan-style Nativity and the 16th-century Flemish Nativity he created together with his wife, artist Karen Loccisano. Palan is from Northeast Philadelphia, and Loccisano grew up in Bridgewater, New Jersey. 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. Palan created his contribution to this year’s exhibition over the past several months from cork, wood, polymer clay and acrylic paint. He describes the scene in this way:

“Each year the story of the Nativity is told over and over and passed down from one generation to the next. The story is always the same, but the personal act of making a Nativity continuously reenergizes the story. The scene takes place in a late 19th century mountainous village in Italy, alive with activity. In this Nativity I was trying to portray common people as pilgrims traveling to the site of the Nativity shrine, bearing gifts as the kings and shepherds did in the original Nativity story.”


Figure 13: Detail view of Figure 12. R. Michael Palan, a professional artist from Westchester County, New York, created this Nativity in 2015 from cork, wood, polymer clay and acrylic paint. On loan from R. Michael Palan.


Figure 14: This Canadian Nativity originally belonged to a church in New Jersey, where it had been in the basement for about fifty years. The figures are hand carved from wood, and their clothing is hand sewn. A member of the congregation believes the Nativity probably dates to the 1920s. It likely belongs to the French Canadian tradition of wood carving, which traces its origins to the seventeenth century. On loan from the National Christmas Center and Museum.


Figure 15: Nativities have been carved in the small Bavarian village of Oberammergau for many generations, and today approximately 200 woodcarvers work in the village. At one time Ludwig Kraus, who carved this large Nativity from basswood, had 45 woodcarvers working for him in his studio. This Nativity, which Kraus carved between 1958 and 1965, was in the window of Marshall Field’s flagship store in Chicago at Christmastime. Kraus died in 1982, but the woodcarving shop continues under his nephew, Ernst Kraus, who apprenticed with his uncle. On loan from the National Christmas Center and Museum.


Figure 16: Glencairn’s own Nativity tradition dates to the 1920s, when Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn commissioned a large three-part Nativity for their home by craftsmen from the Bryn Athyn Studios. The Pitcairn Nativity has been displayed annually in Glencairn’s Upper Hall since the building was completed in 1939. In the 1950s the Pitcairns commissioned a similar Nativity for the Eisenhower family, which was placed beside the Christmas tree in the East Room of the White House. This year the scenes have been given new life with professionally designed interior lighting.


Christmas Traditions in Many Lands and World Nativities are open from 12 to 4:30 every day through January 10, except December 24 and 25. No reservations are needed to tour these exhibitions at one’s own pace. Suggested donation: $5 per person. 

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