Number 12, 2015
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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.”
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.