Ever see a Nativity scene that includes African Masai herdsman in feathered headdresses? A Czech scene with hundreds of villagers? Moose, giraffes and polar bears around the manger? A crèche from the American Northwest with Mary as an Inuit holding a bundled up Baby Jesus?

You can see all of these and more at the University of Dayton’s Marian Library main Christmas exhibit. More than 200 Nativities are on display though Jan. 31, 2011, in this year’s show called “At the Manger: World Nativity Traditions.”

The Dayton, Ohio, Marian Library’s vast Crèches International collection contains over 3,600 sets and particularly seeks out those Nativities that demonstrate the link between culture and faith. This illustrates how peoples and cultures around the world tell the story of Jesus’ birth using or adapting their own particular customs, traditions, dress, architecture and even familiar animals.

“Each piece tells the same story of the Nativity and shows how human culture has helped God’s message to be better seen and better heard,” said Marianist Father Johann Roten, director of research and special projects for the Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute in a prepared statement. Father Roten is initiator and former director of Crèches International.

He noted how Nativity scenes are becoming increasingly popular in non-Western cultures. This show includes such luminous examples as a Palestinian manger scene where joyous participants break out into praises and celebration and Jesus’ birth set amid a Nigerian village. 

With so many crèches in the collection, the library has a few other exhibits on display around the university. The “Mirror of Hope” exhibit includes 306 different figures telling about salvation history from creation “all the way to the realization of eschatology” as “people move up the mountain to the heavenly Jerusalem,” according to Father Roten, with the Nativity always at the center. Another crèche dates to 1850 and comes from the region of Grulich in eastern Czechoslovakia, uses at least 120 different figures.

Some crèches are on loan for the “Christmas in Asia” exhibit at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Conn.

The exhibits are a blessing to those helping with the crèche displays as well as to visitors.

Student worker Kate Schuster, a junior operations major from the Chicago area, enjoys working with the Nativity collection. She has delivered dozens of manger scenes and designed displays, which the library loans out during Advent to offices around the campus.

She’s amazed by the range of materials used, such as straw, nails, soap, gourds, candle wax and cornhusks. Said Schuster, “They’re all beautiful and they’re all different.” 

But the impact goes deeper. “It’s given me a new perspective on Mary as a normal person,” she said. “She isn’t that different from anyone else in the world. Mary did everything with love. It helps remind me what is supposed to be the center of my life, and I try to embody that in my everyday life and everyday work.”

Nativities are special to the Nickelman family of Beavercreek, Ohio. Every year volunteer Jean Nickelman brings her children and grandchildren to the Marian Library exhibit. They enjoy the large range of cultures represented in the crèches.

Nickelman says crèche scenes are part of the family’s traditions — they’re given as gifts for birthdays and weddings. The Nickelmans find they are an accessible way to share the Christmas story.

“It’s so good for the children to be able to see and touch the story, to be excited about the Baby Jesus being born,” Nickelman says, “and, in a very real, tangible way, appreciate that God is in all people, all over the world.”

Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is

based in Trumbull, Connecticut.


The Marian Library and University of Dayton are located about 15 minutes away from the intersection of two major interstates: I-75 and I-70. For more information, call (937) 229-4234 or visit the website.