Away in the Manger: Antique and vintage nativity scenes have varied history, values

Massachusetts resident Father Christopher Gomes grew up in a community where nothing about Christmas was understated. It was crèches that were the main decorations in those homes. And families didn’t just set out a single nativity set. While recalling childhood memories, Father Christopher said, “I’d walk into the living room of friends and the entire room would have become Bethlehem.” Nothing matched, but it fascinated him.

When Father Christopher was eight, his grandfather gave him his first crèche set. “It wasn’t expensive,” he said of that simple department store gift. “But it was all mine.” His collection has grown since that modest beginning 43 years ago. He now owns nearly 300 sets; most of which date from the 1700s to mid-1900s.

Crèches have a long history. Carved presentations of the Nativity existed as early as the 8th or 9th century. Painted frescoes were the next nativity scenes. But it is St. Francis of Assissi who is known for personalizing it. In 1223, St Francis chose a humble setting in the Italian town of Greccio to recreate the birth of Jesus. He tied an ox and a donkey to a hay-filled manger, gathered real shepherds, and told the story to local people. By doing so, St. Francis brought the Nativity to life. Churches across the continent soon offered their own equally rustic renditions.

A Must See!
One of the collections granted a ‘Must See’ status by Friends of the Créche society is that of Algoma Boulevard United Methodist Church in Oshkosh, Wis. According to church member Kate Yarbro, their collection contains more than 1,000 sets and is one of the largest permanently displayed collections in the world. It was donated by just one individual, Mildred Turner. Turner’s impressive accumulations, from figures smaller than your thumb to five feet tall, are made from every kind of material and come from all around the world.

By the 15th and 16th centuries, live-nativities were replaced by three-dimensional crèches in churches. The nobility and wealthy followed in their desire to decorate their homes with them. These prosperous individuals could afford to commission hand-crafted, elaborate pieces. Those who couldn’t, made their own less spectacular examples.

As Christianity spread, so too did crèches. Customs of different countries influenced their interpretations of the characters. Many were created by people without formal artistic training using materials on hand that were indigenous to their area.

Crèches have been created from a wide variety of materials including wood, clay, papier-mâché, cardboard, porcelain, molded plastic, ceramics, bronze, sterling silver, resin compounds, bamboo, straw, gourds, and fiber.

In Art of the Crèche, James L. Govan wrote of the passion he and his late wife had for collecting nativities from around the world.

Most of their 450 sets were collected within the last 30 years. His book showcases examples of different cultures from their collection. Native materials and customs are exemplified by those crèches.

Regardless of where a crèche originated or from what materials it was made, since it tells the story of Christ’s birth, most have figures of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus in the manger, angel, shepherds, and three magi. How those characters are represented and what other variations are added makes crèche collecting intriguing. Costumes, musical instruments, flora and fauna; all provide glimpses into a crèche’s homeland and its cultural and regional differences. For example, not all cultures have magi bearing traditional gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In one of Govan’s African crèches, magi brought gifts of ivory, a chicken, and a gourd ‘medicine container.’

Crèches can have structures, such as Alpine stables, Roman ruins, Russian domes, village huts, or shepherd tents. They can also have painted background scenes. The childhood homes of Father Christopher’s recollections were filled with hand-painted pastoral settings, starry skies, and buildings from their imagined Bethlehem.

According to Govan, not all crèches are made as a reflection of faith. Crèches are also made by both Christians and non-Christians to earn a living. He owns crèches made by Buddhist, Muslim, Taoist, and Jewish artists. Others are made by those wishing to create art of their culture. And some are made entirely for the sake of artistic expression.

Crèches imported from Germany might be found stored with old family Christmas decorations. However, the more affordable Italian-produced sets dominated the mid-1900s market and are most likely the ones tucked away with other Christmas remnants from that pre-plastic era. Variety stores, such as Woolworths, Sears, and Montgomery Ward, sold items individually. Each year new pieces could be added.

In 1960, Harland Plastics, Inc. of Hartland, Wis., began producing unbreakable crèches. While many of the older American generation continued to collect mainly European nativities, younger families bought the American-made, indestructible, plastic versions.

Enthusiasts collect all types of pieces. Some are interested in specific countries, such as Africa. Some gather nativities from specific time periods. Others seek out particular makers. Those created from certain materials is another collecting category. Then there are people who enjoy crèches made from unconventional materials such as auto parts and spoons. Finally, there are the generalists; collectors of “a little bit of everything,” as Michael Whalen describes his collection. Whalen is the current president of Friends of the Crèche society, a 400 member organization founded 10 years ago.

Whalen suggests families visit museums as well as public and private exhibitions of nativities that are open to the public for free or an optional donation. The society’s Web site ( has a list of permanent nativity displays to explore. This guide ranks them according to those: you must see; should see; are worth a visit if you’re in the area; and those that might prove interesting if you’re in the area.

Father Christopher advises those just starting a collection: “Let people know.” Nativities, whether an entire set or single piece, are often given to those interested in preserving this art form. Notification can reach a wide audience through church bulletins — a method he has used.

Creche Values
• Holland: porcelain, 15 pieces, tallest figure 10 inches high     $1,000-$1,100.
• Ireland: carved wood, 8 pieces, 7 inches high    $75-$125.
• Kenya: carved wood, 14 pieces, tallest figure 11 1/4 inches high    $100-$150.
• Nova Scotia: pewter & textured glass, one piece votive design, 11 inches high    $175-$200.
• Portugal: clay, 8 inches high    $35-$50.
• South America: terra cotta, 9 piece set, tallest figure 5 3/4 inches high    $300-$400.
• United States: Native American, ceramic and fabric, 10 pieces, tallest piece 18 inches high tee-pee stable    $400-$500.
• United States: carved wood, 8 pieces, tallest figure 10 inches high    $160-$175.

Source: Antique Trader Antiques & Collectibles 2009 Price Guide

New collectors need to learn how to differentiate an original from a fake. Father Christopher has seen really good fakes, especially of the valuable Italian-made Neapolitan figures. “Knowledge is key” is his motto, and although information is limited, he offers a bibliography (see side bar). He also urges acquisitions be made through reputable dealers who will authenticate in writing what is being sold … and cautions, “Buyer beware if a dealer refuses.”

It is difficult to ascertain originality and condition without first examining a piece. Look at the hands, feet, and face for chips.

Pieces stored in basements might be mildewed. Attic-stored crèches fared no better, especially those made of wax. Before buying online, inquire about the shop’s policy if you’re not satisfied. Also ask how they measure. Is it shoe-to-head or shoe-to-halo? Do measurements include stand?

Another Father Christopher motto: Buy what you like … it doesn’t have to be a set. Enthusiasts enjoy the hunt for additional pieces. Jesus is a figure not easily found. Father Christopher said there are 10 Mary and Joseph figures for every Jesus. He once lucked out and bought a Neapolitan Jesus, authenticated as “not in great condition,” for $400. He could have sold it right afterwards for $5,000.

Creche Facts
In the White House

According to Mary Evans Seeley, author of Season’s Greetings from the White House, a traditional crèche has been displayed during the holiday season at the White House since it was donated in 1967. The crèche, which was made in Naples, Italy in the late 18th century, was a gift to the White House from Mrs. Charles W. Engelhard, Jr.

The set, a focal point of the East Room, consists of forty-four terra cotta and wood Neapolitan figures. President and Mrs. Kennedy chose an image of this crèche for their 1963 Christmas card, the first religious subject of a presidential Christmas card. Thirty of the cards had been signed before he was assassinated. However, the autographed cards were never mailed.

A Highly Anticipated New York Event

The Metropolitan Museum of Art will continue the yearly tradition of its annual Christmas tree and Neapolitan Barouque Crèche display until January 6, 2010. The extravagant 18th-century Neapolitan Nativity scene skirts a spruce tree that’s adorned with silk-robed angels.

Créche Quiz
Can you name the country?
In which country is a nativity called:
A crib?
A creche?
A krippe?
A presepio?
A nacimento?
A szopka?

Answers: in sequence: England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland

Prices are driven upward by competition from cross-over buyers in the crèche market. Folk art enthusiasts are drawn to hand-crafted nativity examples. Collectors of black memorabilia gather African-made crèches. Angel collectors compete with crèche buyers, making angels difficult to locate.

Purists prefer buying items in original condition, so think twice before restoring yours. Big-time collectors would rather have items restored themselves to assure quality in workmanship than purchase pieces that are often poorly done.

Father Christopher’s nativity figures surface from their acid-free tissue paper and storage boxes in early October. By December, his entire residence becomes an elaborate ‘Bethlehem.’ His fascination remains.

Father Christopher’s Bibliography

Christmas Collectibles, by Margaret & Kenn Whitmeyer

The Christmas Creche, Treasure of Faith, Art & Theater, by Matthew Powell, OP

Il Presepe Napoletano, The Neapolitan Crib, edited by Marisa Piccoli Catello

Pictorial Guide to Christmas Ornaments & Collectibles, Identification & Values, by George Johnson


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