Nothing says “Christmas” more clearly at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Conn., than its annual crèche exhibit.
In years past, we’ve marveled at crèches from the Vatican, Italy, Europe, Central and South America and Asia.
The seventh-annual exhibit takes visitors to Africa in “Christmas Across Africa.”
More than a dozen countries are represented in this show, where each Nativity scene has been adapted to each country or local culture and customs.
Most of the crèches have European influences. The reason is simple: European countries colonized Africa, especially in the 19th century. Even before that, European missionaries brought Christianity to many places on the African continent.
For instance, this particular Nativity scene from the Congo takes place in the familiar stable. But notice that the stable is quite open and the cow is native to its area.
In many ways, this crèche sets a pattern: First, it’s carefully and lovingly handmade. Second, the figures are elongated. Third, the dress or costume is native to the particular country.
Another very stylized example from the Congo is carved from ebony and highly polished. The slim figures almost appear to be silhouettes. Although there is no surrounding scenery, there’s no question this is a Nativity scene. Notice the native headdress of the Magi, for instance.
Of course, not all crèches are monotone, like this one from Kenya.
Some of the crèches combine both monotone and bright colors, like this one from Nigeria, where about 40% of the population of 150 million-plus people are Christian. Not only that, but it sets the Nativity scene in a village where typical villagers engage in local customs to honor the Christ Child.
The hand-carved figures wear native costume and hats. Notice the group of women bringing gifts of bread to the Bread of Life. And how about that great band, complete with native instruments, marching in line to serenade the Holy Family? This feature is quite reminiscent of the mariachi bands some Mexican crèches have playing for the newborn King.
Also notice the Three Kings, who arrive via boat. Note the shepherds and angel, too.
A similar scene from Nigeria is much more elaborate because it includes the entire village engaged in their everyday activities during the birth of the Savior.
In this crèche from Rwanda, the scene is more contained.
Carved of a blonde-toned wood, it’s more traditional in style, yet everyone, from Mary and Joseph to the shepherds and Three Kings, have on native attire. The local hut in the back replaces the stable, and the man nearby carries wood on his head as he engages in his regular chores.
Animals found in Africa also make an appearance at the crèche. This one from Kenya includes a giraffe and an elephant kneeling before the manger.
The native dress is most colorful in representations from Kenya/Tanzania, with cropped hair and earrings.
There are many especially unique sculptures of the Holy Family from Zimbabwe, which is approximate 80% Christian.
All are carved from the springstone native to the country. Depending on how this springstone is carved and polished, it stays either in its natural reddish tone or becomes a grayish-blue and then a lovely blue and shiny ebony.
These examples from top stone carvers in Zimbabwe bring out the best of all these colors and their shadings. The sculptures range from about 18 inches high to a Madonna and Child that is exactly more than 8-feet tall.
The faces of the Holy Family are in ebony, their garments in blue, and the figures themselves always appear in very flowing, very graceful lines.
One out-of-the-ordinary characteristic of some of the sculptures are the oversized hands of the Holy Family or the larger than normal head given to the Baby Jesus The explanation accompanying the exhibit stated that the hands symbolize love and protection, while the head symbolizes Jesus’ divine knowledge.
There are also a few crèches whose figures have much more European features, like the following two simple scenes from Madagascar. Both are carved of wood, and both have angels in the scene, something many of the other crèches do not include. Notice how one angel stands high atop a native plant.
Then there are Coptic icons from Egypt. As they show us the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt not long after the birth of Jesus, they remind us that the roots of Christianity go way back to Northern Africa.
These icons are done on papyrus, and most are quite colorful, like those in the example of the Flight into Egypt, which includes a blue donkey.
As for the icons of the Theotokos, or the Mother of God with the Child Jesus, in each, Mary and Jesus look directly ahead with their almond-shaped eyes, and Mother holds her Child with her left arm over his shoulder and her right hand directing our attention to him.
Two-dimensional pictures of the Nativity mainly from Kenya/Niarobi give us yet another insight into African crèches made with native materials. This is a fine example of different crèches that have been artistically assembled from banana leaves.
From Zimbabwe’s “Merry Kisimusi” to “E ku odun, e hu iye dun” in Nigeria and “Kuwa na Krismusi njema” in Swahili, the meaning is clear: “Merry Christmas.”