Photo by James Wood

Christmas around the world

By  James Wood, Catholic Register Special
  • December 1, 2013

KINGSTON, ONT. - There’s a lesson to be learned in the basement of St. Paul the Apostle parish, where artist Tony Vella has assembled a collection that teaches the story of God made human, shown through the lens of cultures from around the world.

The classic scene of Jesus’ birth has been reproduced in many and varying ways throughout the collection, which features scenes you might see for sale in a department store to handmade dolls constructed out of paper and coloured wood.

Vella, a parishioner at St. Paul’s, has been working on the collection of scenes for the past four years. Vella finds the pieces in varying ways, with some purchased at North American church bazaars and others picked up in his travels through different cities and countries the world over.

The collection amounts to a kind of world tour of Christmas creches.

It includes some unique images, such as hand-carved wooden dolls from El Salvador and rolled paper figures from Vietnam.

His principle work is a nearly one-metre long diorama called “Christmas Eve in Bethlehem.” The piece depicts the birth of Christ, and the accompanying scene that would have played out in the town. Shepherds hold their sheep, shopkeepers sell their wares and an angel perches on the roof watching Mary and Joseph welcome their son into the world.

Vella is the leader of the Nativity Project, an organization that seeks to educate youth about the birth of Jesus and what it means to Christians. He started it after he was asked by a teacher at St. Patrick Catholic School in Kingston to provide a project for elementary school pupils that fit in with the Catholic curriculum.

His idea? Have the students build their own nativity scenes. Vella had a background in manufacturing work and production management, and since retiring four years ago he decided to put that experience to good use.

The project soon expanded beyond St. Patrick’s. Vella has high hopes for its continued growth.

“My objective is that wherever we have a Catholic school board, that they look at this project as a kind of way to enhance what they already have in their schools — get a little more hands on involvement.”

On Nov. 20 Vella showcased his collection to kids from John XXIII Catholic School. Students from all grades walked among tables spread with manger scenes, marvelling at the different portrayals of the birth of Jesus. Kingston Archbishop Brendan O’Brien also paid a visit, and said he was impressed by the collection.

(James Wood is a Belleville, Ont.-based freelance photographer and writer.)

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