Holiday treasures at Washington’s National Cathedral

Every year Washington’s National Cathedral stages one of the most anticipated holiday exhibitions in town: a display of international nativity scenes, or crèches, depicting the birth of Christ.

Culled from a diverse collection from around the globe, the display of crèches rotates annually and also includes nativity scenes representing different U.S. states in all their regional variety. The exhibition made its début in December 1990, when a cathedral docent named Beulah Sommer loaned some of her crèches for a public display. In 1998, Sommer donated 600 crèches to the cathedral, whose collection now numbers about 700 and is still growing.

In celebrating cultures from nearly every continent, the annual crèche display “helps to fulfill the cathedral’s mission as a house of prayer for all people,” said curator Lori Amos.

Miniature crèche display in a pot (D.A. Peterson/State Dept.)
(D.A. Peterson/State Dept.)

This nativity scene from Cartagena, Spain, was made by breaking the face of a traditional pottery jar and inserting a miniature stable, tiny figurines and surrounding topography. Each crèche created in this manner is one of a kind, because no two jars will break the same way.

Miniature crèche display with Asian figures (D.A. Peterson/State Dept.)
(D.A. Peterson/State Dept.)

Carved by newly converted Christians, this crèche from China features a flowering plum tree near the manger. One of the animals is a water buffalo with Asian brands on its withers and haunches.

Miniature crèche display with peasant figures (D.A. Peterson/State Dept.)
(D.A. Peterson/State Dept.)

A nativity scene from Russia depicts the Holy Family as Russian peasants, dressed in rustic garb with traditional embroidery. Joseph carries a lit lantern, representing Christ as the light coming into the world.

Miniature crèche display with African figures (D.A. Peterson/State Dept.)
(D.A. Peterson/State Dept.)

Crafted in Senegal, this crèche is populated by figures wearing traditional Senegalese robes, with the Holy Family posed in front of a thatched hut. Joseph holds his staff upright, while Mary cradles the Christ child in her arms.

Miniature crèche display made with wooden branches (D.A. Peterson/State Dept.)
(D.A. Peterson/State Dept.)

This nativity scene from Poland is made of birch branches, with carved figures that seem to emerge from each individual branch. The wood used for each figure has its own distinctive bark, which serves as the “clothing” for the figure.