Creches tell Nativity story amid local culture

Friday, December 27, 2019 - Updated: 10:44 am

By Katie Rutter Catholic News Service

DAYTON, Ohio — Each culture, if not every home, has its own unique rendition of the Nativity. The Christ Child may lay on a manger made from materials as diverse as wax, blown glass, yarn, papier-mache and terra cotta. Mary might don the dress of a first-century peasant or Renaissance royalty.

The ubiquitous manger scene makes the perfect illustration of enculturation, that is, adapting the principles of faith to a specific cultural setting. The Incarnation, the moment God becomes human, allows the nations to envision Christ as one of their own.

“Enculturation is a step further from the Incarnation,” said Marianist Father Johann Roten, a scholar at the University of Dayton and expert on cultural interpretations of the Nativity.

“The Incarnation is the Son of God becoming human, and enculturation will then be, he becomes not only human, but he becomes Afghani or he is Persian or he is German or French,” Father Roten told Catholic News Service.

The University of Dayton, which is a Catholic and Marianist institution, has amassed what curators believe is the largest collection of Nativity sets in North America. The archives contain about 3,600 creches from around 100 different countries.

“They’re really important examples of popular devotion,” said Sarah Cahalan, director of the Marian Library at the university, which houses the Nativity sets.

Each December the university displays about 100 curated sets.

On Dec. 2, the opening day of the Nativity display, a creche from New Mexico following the Pueblo tradition was made of clay painted with traditional colors and geometric shapes. Each face was fashioned to have a prominent nose and a wide-open mouth.

“The idea behind it is what is most important in life is indeed life, and so therefore the breath of life, or the open mouth, and the nose that highlights that,” Father Roten said in an interview for Catholic News Service.

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with erecting the first live Nativity scene in 1223 in Greccio, Italy, recreating the moment using animals, people and perhaps even an infant stand-in for Christ.

“Our own beliefs and religion actually hinges upon our own tradition, the life of the family, what we heard from our father, mother, the kind of objects they left us,” explained Father Roten.

He suggested that, no matter what traditions were followed, the Nativity be used as a tool to bring the family together in the “feast of love” known as Christmas.

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