Originally created 12/13/04

Abbey's Nativity collection attracts thousands



CHARLESTON, S.C. - Some are elaborately painted and decorated, others are simply fashioned of wood or clay, while one is even made of discarded Coke cans. But the hundreds of Nativity scenes from around the world at Mepkin Abbey tell the same story of the birth of Jesus Christ in a lowly stable.

The abbey owns 350 crGeches and the display of a portion of them attracted 2,000 visitors this holiday season. Now, there is a new documentary on the manger scenes and plans to extend the annual exhibit.

The Trappist monastery is located along the quiet upper reaches of the Cooper River, about 25 miles northwest of Charleston.

Earl Kage of Rochester, N.Y., recently donated more than 250 Nativity scenes to the abbey.

This year, for a second time, the abbey displayed almost 50 of the manger scenes on two November weekends.A 30-minute documentary, "Nativity, the Art and Spirit of the CrGeche," also was produced this year by Robert G. Maier, whose film "Trappist," which also was filmed at the monastery, has been televised on more than 200 stations nationwide.

It was too late to get the Nativity film on the air this season, but the monks hope it can be televised next year, said Mary Jeffcoat, a Mepkin spokeswoman. The documentary, for sale through the abbey, traces the history of Nativity scenes.

St. Francis of Assisi often is credited with staging the first Nativity scene, although the display used real people instead of figures, said the Rev. Paul Philibert, an American Dominican priest currently teaching pastoral theology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.

Philibert, who appears in the documentary, was theologian in residence at Mepkin last year.

He told The Associated Press by e-mail that at the time of St. Francis - he died in the 1220s - mystery plays, or what we now could call pageants, were being performed in front of churches to share Christian stories with people in their own languages at a time when masses were in Latin.

While Nativity scenes with figures were later displayed in churches "my guess is that it is not until the 19th century that crGeches became popular in the home," Philibert said.

He noted the Mepkin display included scenes representing cultures from around the world.

When Christ was born, Philibert wrote, "it was so that he could be the brother and friend of everyone in every culture. So, of course, Africans welcome a dark baby Jesus and Latinos a beautiful Aztec or Mayan baby."

One manger scene shows the baby Jesus laying on a coconut shell, another in a bed of chili peppers.

In the United States, the scene is often recreated in a wooden stable.

"There was no such thing as a wooden stable in Bethlehem at the time," Kage said in the documentary. "The stables were always caves in the mountains or dug out areas in the hillside because wood was very, very scarce in that area."

Philibert added there is no standard version of the Nativity.

"Because of a growing interest in ethnicity and a more widespread access to other cultures, people are likely to find in their parish churches or in their homes... figures that represent Jesus in every imaginable ethnicity, race, culture and social class," he said.