Reflection of culture; Nativities can be a mirror into other people’s views

Published 8:46 am Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Helen Holder recalled a visitor who was surveying one of Holder’s over 900 nativity sets. The Austin woman is widely known for her collection and often has groups come to her home to see her display over the holidays.

“She looked at one nativity from Nigeria,” Holder told an audience at the Historic Hormel Home on Tuesday, part of its Hearth and Home series. “She said, ‘That’s not what Baby Jesus looked like!’

“Well, the chances of having Baby Jesus as blond and blue-eyed were pretty slim, too,” Holder told the audience with a chuckle.

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And yet, both depictions of Jesus — and the rest of those at the stable — are not unusual, she said, and that was the point of her talk. The nativities we choose to display probably say more about our own cultures rather than that in which Jesus was born.

Helen Holder’s favorite nativity set is one created by her grandchildren — one as young as 8-months-old. ‘I let him scribble and then Bill (her husband) cut the wood around the scribble.’

Few nativities are historically correct, she added. She listed the traditional visitors to the stable as seen in most nativities, noting that all but the shepherds and the Holy Family are mentioned being in the stable on the night of Christ’s birth. The Wise Men, in fact, were a year away from seeing Jesus. There is no mention of lambs, an ox or sheep being at the manger, and the angel came to the shepherds in the fields, which prompted the shepherds to travel to Bethlehem.  If an angel came to the stable, we don’t really know about it.

In fact, Holder said, Mary may have given birth in a home of one of Joseph’s relatives. He was, after all, coming back to his hometown and to not stay with a relative would have been unusual, Holder said. The word “inn” had a different meaning in Biblical times, and referred to a guest room. What could have happened was that “no room at the inn” meant there was no upper guest room in which to stay. It also was not unusual to have animals on the first floor of a private residence, and that floor would have had stalls – and could have, perhaps, been the scene of Jesus’ birth.

Holder brought information about how nativities evolved over the centuries. One lesson was central to her talk: Whether or not the creches are historically accurate, it shows that those displaying them revere the Holy Family.

The way those in the stable are depicted can be symbolic; Jesus with his legs crossed, but his arms open and outstretched reflect the crucifixion; his fingers, if extended, seem to offer a blessing. In some nativities, the Baby Jesus is the largest piece of the set, to show his kingship, she said. Mary in the early Western tradition was seated; in the Eastern, she was laying down. Even the Wise Men’s gifts are thought to be symbolic. For instance, frankincense, she said, symbolized divinity.

The re-creation of Christ’s birth in nativities evolved over the years, she said. At first, they appeared as wall drawings in the catacombs, and then in churches and later, in traveling puppet shows (“Marionettes,” Holder said, “means, Little Mary’s.’”).  St. Francis of Assisi was credited with creating a depiction with live animals in a stable, to show that despite Jesus’ poor beginnings, he came to be the king of kings.

Acquiring nativities for private homes gained traction in the 1800s when F. W. Woolworth began importing and selling inexpensive German-made pieces “and soon, everyone had one,” she said.

Of the over 900 nativity sets owned by Helen Holder, many come from other countries. This one is from Brazil.

Today, nativity pieces can be found in a host of countries, where Holder has found a number for her collection. They come in all shapes and sizes – her smallest can be found in a watermelon seed – but all have one theme.

“Historical accuracy is not the point,” she said, “but cherishing Jesus and his birth is” regardless of who is at the manger, what they are wearing, or how many are depicted (some nativities have up to 22 Wise Men, she said). “Nothing is wrong with any nativity … and the makers are the ones who choose how the story will be told.”