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Nativity Sets in history and Native American culture

Despite the increasing secularization of the Christmas holidays, from xmas trees to Frosty snowmen to solstice promotions, one event remains at the core of Christmas celebrations.

Without the birth of the Christ child, there would be no Christmas. There could easily be a Festivus and Winter Carnivals. But would they have the deep spiritual connection with adherents that Christmas does? It's doubtful. I find it hard to get excited about the first day of winter. How about you?

Whether you accept this premise or not, you can understand that for the faithful the power of Christmas emanates from the magic and majesty of the babe's appearance in a humble manger that night.

Little wonder then that the Nativity scene has become such an enduring and beloved symbol of Christmas. How did it all begin?

Legend has it that St. Francis conceived the idea of a manger scene to honor the birth of Christ. Of course, depictions of the event in art go back before the 1200s, when St Francis is said to have first created a nativity scene with animals and people. That was the supposed beginning of a tableau tradition that reached out across the seas, over the centuries and among cultures to appear in Christmas celebrations around the world.

Nativities became integral parts of family celebrations and, indeed, in some ways, part of the family. Manger scenes have different names in different cultures. Creche (France), Crib (England), Krippe (Germany), Presepio (Italy), Belem (Portugal), Szopka (Poland) and Nacimento (Spanish) are among the words used to describe Nativity scenes.

The latter term migrated with the Spanish Catholic missionaries into the American Southwest in the 18th Century, where Native Americans adopting Christian beliefs picked it up. It was used alternatively with the English language word, "Nativity", to refer to displays representing and recreating the event and place of Jesus' birth.

This, in turn, evolved into miniature Nativity sets created by Native American artists and featuring Mary, Joseph and Jesus in the worshipful company of beasts, shepherds, wise men and, occasional angels,. These usually are formed in pottery. They take on the style and artistic tradition of the potter's tribal background and individual style of carving or potterymaking.

Andrew Rodriquez of Laguna does typically abstract presentations.

Margaret Mirabel and Juanita Martinez of Taos do more realistic versions.

Santa Clara potters, such as Rose Brown, Maxine Naranjo and Paul and Dorothy Gutierrez, adhere to their distinctive clays and slips of their pueblo.

Annette Romero of Cochiti has her own unique style.

The potters of Jemez; Sabaquie, Marie Toya, Trujillo and the Fraguas, create Nativity sets in the common coloration and clay for which their pueblo is known.

The Fraguas, Jay, Linda and Felicia, step out even further, creating Nativity sets around creatures such as bears and mice. This is not an act of disrespect, although it may reflect the mixed reverence that Native Americans have in regard to Christianity. It is, more likely, a blending of Native beliefs in nature and a Native sense of humor about the superhuman character of Nativity stories. In any event, they are unique smile-makers representing an event that is all about joy.

In addition to pottery sets, Native American carvers are creating Nativities from carved materials. Wilson Romero of Cochiti creates rough cut Nativity figures from stone and rocks found on the ground of his pueblo. Zuni, Troy Sice, carves Nativity figures from antler.

Many traditions surround Nativity set displays. Some owners add pieces as the Christmas season progresses, timing the additions to the legendary Christmas calendar. Others reserve Christmas Eve for placing the babe in the scene. Families have been known to collect Nativity sets piece by piece over a number of years. The buyer of a Native American Nativity set, however, gets the entire set in one purchase.

There are protocols associated with the display according to some experts. The typical set has a minimum of five pieces. Included are Mary, Joseph, Jesus and two or more animals. The wise men make another three pieces. There can be one or more shepherds in addition to or in the place of the wise men. Sometimes the babe and cradle are one piece. Sometimes they are separate pieces. We have owned and sold Nativity sets with as many as 17 pieces, made up mostly of secondary figures, such as animals.

Positioning the members of the set generally starts with the Christ Child as the centerpiece. Closest to him is Mary, his mother. Joseph is usually placed close to the babe but on the other side from Mary. According to one source, Joseph may also be placed away from Jesus, looking in the opposite direction, representing the aspect of doubt in Christian faith. Secondary figures, such as wise men (kings) and shepherds, should be placed in concentric circles behind the Holy Family, with the shepherds closest because they were on the scene before the arrival of the Wise Men. Animals should be placed near the babe, reflecting the humbleness of his birth. Angels, if included, are usually placed above or behind he Holy Family.

Most of all, the Nativity Set is a personal celebration of the birth of Christ and a reflection of the faith and artistic appreciation of the owners. Display it in your home as you see fit.

The author thanks and acknowledges the following articles, which were used in researching this subject;

NativitySets.com
UMC.org
Geocities.com
Wikipedia.com
FamilyChristmasOnline.com


Susanne & William Ernest Waites,
with a 25-year tradition of quality
in tribal arts, are proprietors of
Native Pottery Link

Andrew Rodriquez Laguna Pueblo potter nativity

Sabaquie Jemez Nativity

Margaret Mirabel white Taos Nativity

Gutierrez Santa Clara Nativity

Christmas is coming.
Check out or fine selection of Native American nativity sets to add to you collection.

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