If you haven’t begun decorating your home for Christmas yet, a visit to Historic Kirtland will prompt you to pull out your holiday storage boxes and get started.
This month, Historic Kirtland is featuring Unto Us a Son Is Given, the 10th annual exhibition of over 600 nativity scenes from countries around the world. Presented by the Kirtland, Ohio Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this unique event is something to see.
Naturally, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir provided the soundtrack for our journey to Kirtland last Saturday. We started with Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the 1993 recording on which I first heard “Carol of the Birds” and “Lippai; Upon the Mountain.” Then, we listened to Ring Christmas Bells, the 2009 CD on which the choir teamed with Brian Stokes Mitchell that one of my new friends in Salt Lake City gave me. Saving the best for last, we heard Spirit of the Season, the album for which one of my favorite performers, Norwegian singer Sissel, joined the choir in 2007.
Arriving at Historic Kirtland, we were greeted by welcoming missionaries who were genuinely glad to see us. These kind people have created a peaceful, joyous atmosphere, filled with beautiful things, for visitors to take time in the rush of the Christmas season and reflect upon the birth of Jesus Christ.
Nativities from the United States are exhibited in the Visitors’ Center, while representations of the Holy Family from more than 30 countries are shown in the Schoolhouse. The nativities are on loan from residents of northeastern Ohio and were put on display by volunteers. Just think; the owners of these nativities have unselfishly shared these treasures at the time of year when they are most admired, so that everyone may enjoy them.
Walking into the lobby of the Visitors’ Center, the first thing you see is a charming Christmas tree. Adorned with dried hydrangeas, stars made from cinnamon sticks, eggshell baskets filled with dried berries, clusters of dried chili peppers, preserved orange slices, bunches of ornamental grasses, pinecones, tiny bird nests, wreaths of dried apple slices and popcorn, and other natural elements, this tree offers plenty of inspiration for holiday decorating in the 19th-century tradition.
After admiring a magnificent Neapolitan Baroque-style crèche opposite the tree, we brushed up on our knowledge of nativities by reading a framed calligraphy text panel that offered some interesting details about the tradition. For example, the Latin word cripia, meaning manger, was the origin of the French word, crèche.
Then, we read how St. Francis of Assisi wanted people to remember that Jesus was born in a stable, so he set up the first manger scene in the town of Greccio, Italy in 1223. On Christmas Eve, St. Francis and the people of the town met in a cave. With the help of a farmer, they brought in an ox, a donkey, and some hay, and acted out the story of Jesus’ birth.
Eventually, artists began carving nativities from wood or crafting them from straw. When the tradition spread to other countries, other materials like stone, ivory, glass, resin and papier-mâché were used to create these beautiful scenes.
Next, we watched The Nativity: Luke II, a five-minute film based on the Gospel of Luke’s account of the Nativity. Filmed on location in the Holy Land, this 1986 film tells the story of the Nativity without narration. As with the other Bonneville Communications productions I’ve seen, this film adds the perfect touch to the atmosphere of reflection that Historic Kirtland fosters.
In the room outside the theater, tall, shining glass display cases house more nativities. On one shelf, we admired prints of religious figures, angels and children drawn by Sister Maria Innocentia Hummel, born Berta Hummel in Bavaria in 1909, that were transformed into figurines crafted by W. Goebel Porzellanfabrik artists. Images of nativities printed on antique French lace cards and nativities nestled in tiny geodes were displayed on another shelf. Best of all were some carved nativities in walnut shells. This custom began in Germany, when talented woodcarvers from Oberammergau began carving scenes in nutshells and hanging them on Christmas trees.
Upstairs, more nativities await. In a sparkling white room, there are nativities by Jim Shore and Precious Moments, angels flying in glass globes, golden Wise Men following the star, a school Nativity tableau depicted in porcelain, Nativity scenes painted on ornaments, and a hand-carved representation of the Last Supper featuring wonderfully expressive faces.
Down the hall, there’s even a room where children can watch an animated video about the Nativity, read Nativity board books, play with plush sheep, and create their own manger scenes with Legos and Peanuts action figures from “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” complete with Linus’s shepherd’s headdress, robe and hook, Snoopy’s lamb costume, and Woodstock as the Baby Jesus in the manger. Children can also dress up in hand-sewn costumes, pretend they are one of the Three Kings, and join a child-sized nativity scene for a photo.
Traditional Nacimientos from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries feature the Baby Jesus as the largest of all the figures. My favorite was a Hummel nativity scene.
On one wall of the schoolhouse, framed text panels provide information about how Christmas is celebrated in different countries. For example, in Poland, a strict 24-hour fast is observed beginning on Christmas Eve and ending with a huge feast on Christmas Day. This tradition is called Wigilia, from the Latin vigilare, which means to keep watch. In honor of the star of Bethlehem, the meal does not begin until the first star of the night appears. First, an Oplatek, or wafer, is broken in pieces and shared. Then, a 12-course meal begins, one course for each Apostle. The table is always set with one extra seat in case a stranger appears. Tradition also dictates that bits of hay are spread beneath the tablecloth as a reminder of Christ’s manger.
Visitors can also take part in a fun “I Spy” seek-and-find activity called “Do You See What I See?” We hunted for a paper angel that looks like a dove, counted how many nativities were all white, and checked off the 50 names for Christ that are displayed on hand-written cards throughout the exhibit.
The buildings of Historic Kirtland are also decorated for the Christmas holiday in period style. Wreaths adorn doors, beribboned swags of greenery hang from wooden fences, and punched tin lanterns light the way for evening walks around the village. Inside the Newell K. Whitney home, a garland of handmade stockings decorates the fireplace mantel.
Our visit was complete when we saw Sister Arnesen and Sister Nelson, the friends we made on my birthday trip to Historic Kirtland. Cut from the same cloth as Tait and Cecilia, these enthusiastic, delightful young women are just as inspirational as seeing the nativities.
Recognized by the American Bus Association as one of the “Top 100 Events in North America,” this free exhibition is open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm and Sunday from 11:30 am to 8:00 pm. It continues through December 30, but it is closed on Christmas Day. Several live performances will take place throughout the duration of the exhibit.