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
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
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;