International Creche Exhibit Embraces 'Peace On Earth'

There are many ways to tell a story. The way it’s told depends on who is telling it. At this time of year, the story on everyone’s mind is the first Christmas.

Each December, Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven presents an exhibit of creches. This year the focus is on internationality, featuring at least one example from each of six continents.

The dozens of nativities showcase the ways artisans from various countries present the story using available materials, regionally favored color schemes, traditional costumes and embellishments particular to various geographical and ethnic identities.

An artist from Belarus used straw, an abundant art medium in that country. In Ireland, Waterford Crystal created a beautiful etched plate telling the story of the baby in the manger. An adorable Hungarian creche has kings, shepherds and Mary and Joseph who look like characters from a Rankin-Bass holiday cartoon. A nativity from Iceland is in the form of an abstracted wooden puzzle, with all the soft-edged geometric pieces fitting into a rainbow-shaped frame.

Both China and Vietnam contributed creches in the form of triptychs, the Chinese one made of carved wood and the Vietnamese from gleaming, painted lacquerware. The creches from Kenya and Peru are carved into hollowed-out gourds. A creche from Belize is made from bread dough, and a Canadian piece, by artist Claude LaFontaine, is made from elegantly cut and swirling paper. A delicate artwork from Puerto Rico is the Nativity scene painted on a feather. Gorgeous sculptures from Zimbabwe show the Holy Family carved in springstone, their black surfaces gleaming.

Often regional features makes appearances. A nativity from Ethiopia features a manger that looks more like the round thatched-roof huts seen in that African nation. A creche from Laos also reflects local buildings made from wood and straw. The Russian Nativity is flanked by two onion-domed churches. An Ecuadorean creche shows Joseph with a long braid down his back, and wearing a poncho and fedora.

The German creche is in the form of the “krippenpyramide,” unique to that country. A four-level Nativity — Holy Family and three kings at the bottom, soldiers on the second level, shepherds on the third, angels on the fourth — is surrounded by candleholders. The heat from the candles makes a propeller at the top spin. The Polish creche, too, is a unique artifact from that country. The elaborate, shiny silver cathedral was made by a schoolboy competing in an annual competition to make the best creche.

The sole example from Australia is actually from Tasmania, a cute little diorama made from turned sassafrass wood. The lambs are painted on the shepherds’ bodies, the gifts are painted on the wise men’s robes and the baby Jesus is painted on Mary’s chest. Two angels have lilies painted on them.

King Herod was the bad guy in Jesus’ story. Not only did he not visit the manger, he conspired against those who did. Nonetheless, a Jamaican artisan saw the good side of the monarch, including him, wearing a crown, among the shepherds.

That isn’t the most amusing regional deviation, however. A nativity made by a Cajun artist from Louisiana turns the Three Kings into a chef, a jazz musician and a Native American. An angel eats watermelon. Instead of sheep, the Christ child is surrounded by crocodiles, armadillos and foxes. Joseph cuddles a crawfish and the baby lays in a pirogue, a traditional canoe.

The title of the exhibit is “Peace on Earth.” “People need to embrace that philosophy right now,” said museum spokesman Peter Sonski.

PEACE ON EARTH: CRECHES OF THE WORLD is at Knights of Columbus Museum, One State St., in New Haven, until Feb. 19.

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