The Nativity, as Seen in Enfield
A nativity scene painted on an egg is displayed at the La Salette Shrine in Enfield, N.H., on Dec. 10, 2013. The shrine's collection was donated by Monsignor Charles DesRuisseaux of Manchester, N.H. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »
Santons are displayed at the La Salette Shrine in Enfield, N.H., on Dec. 10, 2013. Santons are terra cotta figurines that were originally produced in Provence, France. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »
A nativity scene from Africa made completely from seed pods is displayed at the LaSalette Shrine in Enfield, N.H. on Dec. 10, 2013. The shrine's collection was donated by Monsignor Charles DesRuisseaux of Manchester, N.H. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »
Hundreds of nativity scenes from all over the world are displayed at the La Salette Shrine in Enfield, N.H., on Dec. 10, 2013. The shrine's collection was donated by Monsignor Charles DesRuisseaux of Manchester, N.H. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »
A nativity scene in a bottle is displayed at the Lasalette Shrine in Enfield, N.H., on Dec. 10, 2013. The shrine's collection was donated by Monsignor Charles DesRuisseaux of Manchester, N.H. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »
For many years, Monsignor Charles DesRuisseaux kept his extensive collection of Nativity scenes at his condominium in Manchester. Because there were more than 450 creche scenes, they took up nearly every available inch of space of the three floors of his house.
Eight years ago, DesRuisseaux decided that he would like to see the collection housed elsewhere, both because he didn’t have any more room and because he wanted the public to be able to see them. He approached the brothers at the La Salette Shrine in Enfield and asked them if they’d be interested.
They were, but for one obstacle. “We said, Well, we have no place to put it,” said Father Rene Butler, director of the La Salette shrine.
Years passed and then one of the brothers who lives and works at La Salette, Brother Claude Rheaume, thought of a way to make a home for the collection. Remove the pews from a small A-frame chapel on the grounds, originally built to honor veterans, and put the collection there.
“We called Monsignor DesRuisseaux and said, Is the offer still good? And he said, Yes, it is,” said Father Butler. Butler and Brother Rheaume visited DesRuisseaux at his home. “We went not knowing what we were going to see,” Butler said. “It didn’t take us long to say yes, yes, yes.”
The collection opened to the public this summer, and since then more than 1,000 people have visited it, Butler added.
What makes the collection remarkable, apart from its size, is the range of countries and cultures that have created Nativity scenes in their own image, from the Inca of the high Andes in Peru and Ecuador to the Inuit of Canada, to peoples from Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico, West Africa, Poland, France, Germany, Laos, Vietnam, China, Palestine and Italy.
These aren’t kitschy scenes but serious attempts to recast a scene familiar from centuries of Western art in terms that are culturally specific, but also universal. And what is more universal than a mother giving birth?
The materials used to make the Nativity scenes include quartz, cement, stones, textiles, needlepoint, wood, walnut shells, gourds, straw, corn husks, glass, potato paste, porcelain, burlap, bread dough, crocheted wool, clothespins and metal.
One Mexican Nativity is only a few inches high, and the figures are woven from straw, right down to a minuscule infant Jesus in a minuscule crib. A Polish Nativity is made from wood and every single figure has a slightly mournful expression on its face. A Portuguese Nativity, made from cork, was inserted into a bottle: creche in a bottle, rather than ship in a bottle. One ingenious artisan inserted a tiny Nativity scene into a walnut shell half.
A traditional French santon is lined up on a wall near the altar. Traditionally made in the southern province of Provence, santons (or little saints) are richly detailed clay figurines representing the people and professions one would find in an 18th or 19th century village, all bringing tribute to the Christ child. A baker with his baguette, the mayor with a red umbrella, a farmer with a string of woven garlic, a spinner of wool: there are some 75 figures in all. And then there are a few Nativity scenes that, like almost every other manufactured good, have been made in China.
Now 79 and retired from the Manchester diocese, Father DesRuisseaux began collecting in 1980, although he received his first Nativity scene from an aunt in 1972. He started slowly, picking up Nativity scenes on his travels and adding 15 to 20 new ones to his collection each year.
“It grew and it grew and it grew,” DesRuisseaux said. “It’s like an addiction after awhile.”
Why do Nativity scenes have such resonance?
Most people, regardless of religious affiliation, or even lack of religiosity, are moved by the imagery. The bewildered parents huddled in a barn, trying to keep themselves and their newborn child warm; the smell of the livestock; the sounds of their breathing; the brilliant, flashing illumination of the star; the mysterious appearance of the angels overhead; the juxtaposition of the poverty-stricken parents, fleeing persecution; with the mighty kings who bow their heads before the helpless infant.
For Father DesRuisseaux, the explanation can be found partially in the appeal of babies. “We were made to love the birth of a baby. It gives new hope for a better world, for peace, for mutual understanding.”
For Father Butler, it is the totality of the scene. “It’s the circumstance of a child being born in a stable. There’s something poetic and something appealing and something sad about it,” he said. “It’s the connection with peace and good will towards men, which is close to everybody’s heart. It’s not just for Christmas.”
The Nativity sets exhibit is open from 4 to 9 p.m. daily through Dec. 31. From January through May, it is open by appointment only. Call 603-632-7087 for information or go to http://www.lasaletteofenfield.org.
Nicola Smith can be reached at email@example.com.