Celebrating Christ’s birth with crèches from around the world

By Jerry Hames

The cathedral’s crèche director, Lori Amos, adjusts figures in a nativity set so that it reflects the customs of the country where it was made.

As many have for the past 26 years, thousands of people will take part in a cherished Christmas tradition when they view a display of nativity scenes from Washington National Cathedral’s extensive crèche collection.

“We will have between 80 and 100 sets out this year,” said Lori Amos, the cathedral’s crèche director, days before the collection was placed on public view Nov. 20. “We’re still in progress, and decisions are being made as we speak.”

Many people come to the cathedral specifically to see the crèche exhibit, while others happen upon it during a tour or while attending a service or event. “Our goal is that, whether they look at everything we’ve displayed or simply stop to glimpse one set, that they’ll find something that blesses them,” she said.

Lori and her husband Chip are solely responsible for setting up the crèche exhibit each year. “He serves as my technical director and works on lighting, moving the crèches and supplies out of storage and into our workroom, formatting and printing labels, photography and major construction projects, while I unpack, set up and decorate each set and write the labels,” she said.

The crèches are displayed in two areas in the cathedral’s crypt — the first room in the north crypt aisle, just west of Bethlehem Chapel — and the Visitors’ Lounge, just outside the Museum Shop entrance.

“The advantage of these locations is that they give an untold number of people the opportunity to view the collection throughout the holiday season,” Amos said.

A serene pottery nativity set made in Maryland reflects the artist’s Asian heritage.

Each nativity is “set dressed” to emphasize its particular attributes, as well as to suggest the culture in which it was created. “Our goal is never to set a crèche the same way twice,” she said, “as we have visitors who have come every year to see those sets many times in a new way.”

The late Beulah Sommer’s collection of more than 600 nativity sets — first loaned to the cathedral for eight years, then donated in 1998 — forms the core of the cathedral’s collection.  About 100 more sets have come into the collection since then.

All nativity scenes are displayed in a three-year rotation so that as many as possible can be viewed. The sets vary dramatically in size and height. This year, the smallest set is a tiny resin nativity built on the head of a pin, while the largest is about 11 inches tall: a carved wooden Holy Family from Finland that includes one black sheep among the animals.

This year’s exhibit contains crèches made of wood, leather, stone, pottery, stained glass, cast iron, lignite coal, a mixture of mud and animal dung, and even ash from the explosion of Mount St. Helens.

In an international city such as Washington, Amos said, it is gratifying to see visitors’ reactions when they see a small representation of their home country or heritage represented in the cathedral’s collection. “Our goal is for everyone to stop, look, learn and be blessed by these incredibly varied representations of Christ’s birth,” she said.  “It is perhaps even more gratifying when people literally see this great story of God’s love in a new way and are moved again by a story they know so well.”

The cathedral’s visitors’ book is filled with comments from adults and many children responding to the question: “Which is your favorite crèche and why?”

A bright and joyous “pesebre” from Brazil comes complete with a gray “cave,” topped with a sparkling silver Star of Bethlehem.

“We have received answers that are funny, moving, profound, passionate and silly, which is why we do this exhibit every year,” Amos said. “We want people to engage with the story of Christ’s birth, to feel its wonder and power, to see themselves represented at the manger, to see this ancient, great story in a new light and, most importantly, to feel included in the great mystery of God’s love.”

The exhibit can be seen through Jan. 16. It is open to the public whenever the cathedral’s crypt level is open, usually during general visiting hours. Due to the busy holiday schedule, visitors are encouraged to visit the website, cathedral.org, to check on availability.