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A Fascination with Folk Art Nativities

Haitian metal Nativity Scene

A Haitian version of the Nativity, by Exulien Exuma

Isn’t it fun to look at Nativity scenes? I love to see how the “First Christmas” is expressed in folk art, with variations from one artist to the next;

one tradition to the next. Diversity is a wonderful thing! Just looking at the three pictured here, the cultural clues are as distinct as they are endearing.

In the first example – worked in recycled metal from Haiti by Exulien Exuma – the evidence of it’s tropical origin is plain. The Holy Infant is unswaddled, for the evening is warm and balmy. He is laying in a tuft of grass under swaying palms, Joseph wears a straw hat, and Mary’s hair is bound up in a kerchief, Caribbean-style. A goat stands in close attendance, nary a sheep or camel in sight.

This Peruvian version, created in Ayacucho, has design details characteristic of the indigenous cultures of the Andes. Even the clay from which it

is made is indicative of its source. The bread being offered by the adoring shepherd is likely Pan de Chuta, if I had to guess. (And I do.) I think it’s a good guess, though. Pan de Chuta is a sweet, anise-flavored bread and regional specialty of the Peruvian Andes. Baked in traditional

Folk Art Nativity from Peru

Peruvian Nativity set from Ayacucho.

wood-burning ovens over eucalyptis leaves, and the small, round loaves are frequently offered as gifts. (To read more about the bread or to see the recipe, click here.) The shepherd also wears a knitted cap, very typical of the region, while Mary and Joseph wear heavy felted wool fedoras, also popularly worn in the Andes. Each of their cloaks, and the Holy Infant’s blanket bear indigenous weaving motifs, all of which combine to create a very Andean signature on the scene.

The third example, though not strictly a Nativity scene, depicts the Holy Family in their flight to Egypt, as interpreted by a Central American folk

artist from El Salvador. Again, clues to the artist’s world view abound. The perfectly cone-shaped mountains that loom in the background of the

Folk art painting of the Holy Family and their Flight into Egypt

From El Salvador comes this vibrantly colored rendering of the Holy Family.

painting echo the volcanic cones that dominate the Salvadorean horizon. Mary and Joseph are enveloped in what might be considered biblical robes, but their bright colors and bold floral and geometric patterns are straight out of the Central American tradition as are the chickens that mill and peck near Joseph’s feet.

While the central story of the First Christmas is universal, its representation through folk art is a unique reflection of the individual artist’s cultural identity, conveyed through the values and aesthetics of his communtiy. Like a translation, folk art nativities are expressions in colloquial language, with nuances and accents that make them vivid and easily understood. And that is precisely what makes each one unique and wonderful.


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

Journeys of The Magi and Me



REC498 "Gifts of the Magi" by Jonas Soulouque

REC498 “Gifts of the Magi” by Jonas Soulouque

Of all of the symbols of Christmas, my favorite is The Three Magi.  Not coincidentally, I suppose, it is their journey that moves me.  At heart, I am an adventurer, and I know that they were too; undertaking a commitment of great distance, following a star to an unknown destination. What marvels did they see?  What hardships did they endure?  What lessons of men and mountains did they learn along the way?

According to what little historical background we can attach to their story, The Magi were Zoroastrian priests of Ancient Persia, an empire that at the time of Christ’s birth extended from what is now Central Turkey southward to the United Arab Emirates and east to Mongolia and the Indus Valley in India. The priestly class of the period was particularly avid in the study of astrology and astronomy and that these three apparently dropped everything in quest of a star could be equated to going abroad in the name of scientific inquiry.  Anticipation of discovery and the thrill of the adventure to unfold must have filled their hearts. What excitement they must have felt as they set out on their overland voyage!

Indeed, their journey was on my mind few years ago, early in the holiday season when I set out to run a quick errand.  I had been in the middle of decorating and had carefully arranged my Nativity set; The Magi leading their camels just so across the console table. Upon critical examination, however, I decided that I needed a couple of poinsettias or greenery at least, to complete the scene.  I jumped in the car to head out in IMG_1130 (640x480)search of same when I passed a Christmas tree lot that had the added attraction of offering camel rides. By golly!  I couldn’t drop everything to follow a star for months on end, but I had 15 minutes to stop and ride a camel.  So I did. Discovery and adventure do not belong only to The Magi.  It is something we share.


Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus




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