NEW HAVEN – “It’s Christmas Central at the Knights of Columbus Museum,” said an enthusiastic museum curator, Bethany Sheffer, who ticked off a handful of events now under way.
On display is “Joy to the World: Crèches of Central Europe,” the museum’s 11th annual Christmas exhibition. It features 76 Nativity scenes from the central European nations of Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.
“We like to show a diversity of crèches” from different countries that reflect the rich artistic tradition, folklore and cultural heritage found in various regions, noted Ms. Sheffer.
The exhibition will be on display through January.
Included in the exhibit are ornate Polish szopki, or Nativity scenes, that date back to the Middle Ages; the German Christmas pyramids or carousels that feature spinning fans, candles and various scenes; the wood crèches of Austria; and the paper Nativities of the Czech Republic.
Also on display is a replica of the Austrian church where the hymn “Silent Night” was composed in 1818, along with a framed copy of the music and lyrics.
“Christmas is a universal theme shared by all these countries, some for more than 800 years,” said exhibit designer Ashley Geremia. “They all have Christmas in common with traditions handed down from generation to generation.”
Architects and designers came from Italy to assemble and curate the unique exhibition on loan from museums and private collections.
“Crèches, which have their roots in Europe, are growing in popularity,” said Simone Braguglia, project manager from Rome. “They represent the values of family, tradition, religion and personal self-expression that increasingly are drawing people to appreciate these magnificent expressions of the Nativity.”
Also on display is the museum’s own collection of crèches, including a hand-carved cedar Nativity scene from Mexico, three Polish szopki and a 120-square-foot Baroque Neapolitan diorama.
Saint Francis of Assisi is attributed with originating the first Nativity scene or crèche in the 13th century. It was in the small Italian city of Greccio in December of 1223 that Saint Francis gathered together a manger scene and celebrated Mass with the people. It is said he wanted to bring to life the event of Christ’s birth and show how Jesus, through his humble birth, came to save all humanity.
Since then, the practice of making crèches spread to villages and Christian homes throughout the world as a testament to the universal nature of Christianity. They often incorporate scenery and traditions from local cultures and artisans.
In addition to the exhibition, other Christmas festivities at the museum include the 15th annual Christmas Tree Festival, featuring 24 trees decorated by Connecticut schoolchildren during the first week of December with handmade ornaments and trim.
The Tree Festival opens with a celebration from 1-4 p.m. Dec. 5 that will include live music by yuletide carolers, children’s crafts, a visit from St. Nicholas and the announcement of the winning schools’ Christmas Trees.
A Christmastime Family Day will be offered from noon to 3 p.m. Dec. 27. It will feature live music from the group Joyful Noise, children’s activities, refreshments, open galleries for the Christmas crèche exhibition and the Christmas Tree Festival.
Connecticut artist and iconographer Mark Czarnecki will discuss the history and distinction of the szopka at 2 p.m. Jan. 16 at the museum. The title of his talk is “The Polish Nativity: A Beautiful Palace for the King of Kings.”
Visitors will be able to browse the museum gift shop that is stocked for the season with beautiful items “you can’t find in stores,” according to assistant manager Maria Giaimo. Items range from specialty Christmas ornaments, cards, crèches and one-of-a-kind gifts and collector’s items to keepsakes, religious and children’s books, icons, devotional aids and items relating to the permanent collection and temporary exhibits.
The museum is located at 1 State St. It is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Admission and parking are free.