‘Oh, Holy Night’: Museum showcases nativity sets

In most accounts of the Christmas story, the basic elements are the same.   On the road and faced with a shortage of accommodations, a heavily pregnant Mary and her husband Joseph spend the night in a stable where, surrounded by livestock, she gives birth to a son named Jesus.

Their surroundings are humble but the origins of the baby are anything but. Three Wise Men, tipped off by the presence of a preternaturally bright star, make their way to the stable to pay their respects to a newborn king.

When it comes to nativities or crèches—depictions of the Christmas story erected by believers during the holiday season—however, the details are a bit different.

Nowhere is this more evident than at Pilgrim Place’s Petterson Museum of Intercultural Art, where 127 nativity sets from around the world are on view through January 5 in an exhibit titled “Away in a Manger.”

These reverential scenes of the birth of Christ represent a wide array of media, ranging from sculptures to prints. They are fashioned from myriad materials, including wood, ceramics, metal, mother-of-pearl and even seedpods.

Fifty of the nativities come from the museum’s permanent archives. The rest hail from the personal collections of residents of the community, which caters to retirees who spent years serving in religious or charitable organizations.

Many Pilgrims have traveled widely, attending international conferences, serving as missionaries or working in other capacities abroad. Thus, nearly every corner of the world is represented in the show.

“What I love about this exhibit is the way it shows the same event through so many cultural lenses,” said museum curator Carol Gil.

The result is a veritable kaleidoscope of interpretations.

In a wood-carved nativity from Switzerland, the holy family is housed in a forest chalet, while a South American nativity takes place in a flood-defying stilt home.  A nativity from the Democratic Republic of Congo is made from banana leaves, while a Russian Matryoshka nativity unpacks from a single wooden nesting doll. A nativity from Thailand features fabric dolls clad in traditional Thai costumes, while a Japanese artist has depicted the miraculous birth via elegant line drawings. 

A Southeast Asian nativity substitutes water buffalo for the more traditional oxen, while a Pacific Northwestern-themed nativity incorporates bears. A unique nativity from Brazil even has the holy family surrounded by rainforest creatures, including an anteater, a tapir and a fierce caiman.

A few of the nativities on view are also Pilgrim-made, including ceramic pieces and a couple nativities made of carved stone housed within halved geodes.

Pilgrim Place resident Ward McAfee, who showed up on Tuesday during the museum’s off-hours to take in the exhibit, said he is impressed by the obvious care his fellow Pilgrims have put into amassing their nativity collections.

“You see the same names over and over,” he said. “I’ve been told that in some cases, when [residents] moved they left behind their furniture, but they insisted on taking their nativity sets.” 

Like the famous stable, the Petterson Museum, currently enlivened with Christmas lights, is humble in size.

It is, however, full of treasures from across the globe, including a concurrent exhibit on the knives and swords once carried by men every day as a sign of power and fighting prowess.

At the other end of the spectrum are the peaceful nativity scenes, which Ms. Gil and her crew will take down in time for the Epiphany, a traditional Christian feast day celebrating the revelation of Jesus’ divine origins.

Ms. Gil hopes the community will stop by to see the “Away in the Manger” exhibit this holiday season, becoming familiar with a museum that’s not as well known as she’d like it to be.

“We’re Claremont’s best-kept secret,” she said.

The Petterson Museum, located at 730 Plymouth Rd. in Claremont, is open to the public on Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. Admission is free. For information, call (909) 399-5544.

—Sarah Torribio



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