An indigenous creche scene. Nancy Mallett has been collecting creches from all over the world for an annual exhibit. Photo by Mickey Conlon

The world of creche

  • December 18, 2019

It’s amazing how far a small, one-off special creche exhibit has come over the past two decades at St. James Cathedral in downtown Toronto.

What originated as a small display to mark the new millennium has grown to the point it is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year with displays of creches from around the world.

“We wanted to do something special to mark the new millennium and we thought of a creche exhibit,” said Nancy Mallett, volunteer archivist at the Anglican cathedral and the driving force behind the popular exhibit.

She’d seen a small creche exhibit and thought it was a wonderful idea to bring to St. James. She borrowed scenes of Christ’s birth that are a staple in Christian homes at Christmas. What she was able to gather went on display for a time but was taken down before Christmas so the pieces could go back to their owners for display in their own homes. Little did Mallett know the exhibit would strike a chord with parishioners.

“It was so successful that people said you should do it closer to Christmas,” she said.

Lo and behold, 20 years later it’s become a tradition, displaying a worldwide collection of scenes depicting the Nativity, many traditional but many more showing the cultural differences in the celebration of Christmas. As an example, an Alaskan creche is carved from a walrus tusk to show a dog team transporting the wise men to the scene, while others show the magi transported in canoes that traverse the African rivers.

A number of different nations are represented this year, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Estonia, Finland, Russia, China, Ivory Coast, Thailand, Venezuela and India.

“They’re all special,” said Mallett. 

Not to miss the Canadian contribution, Mallett mentions two in particular. The first is from Quebec that is in many ways inspired by the famed Quebecois landscape artist and passionate outdoorsman Clarence Gagnon.

“The creche includes a picture of Gagnon painting the figures, and one of the figures is Gagnon himself,” said Mallett.

Alongside Gagnon are the explorers Samuel de Champlain and John Cabot coming to Christ, along with traditional figures of rural Quebec such as a fiddler, a logger and a huntsman.

Then there is a special one representing the Iroquois Confederacy, made by an Iroquois woman living in Toronto, with exquisite beadwork and feather head pieces with hair in traditional braids.

“These things are real treasures,” said Mallett.

There are between 50 and 60 creches on display this year for the exhibit that opened Dec. 4 and was open to the public Sundays through Thursdays until Dec. 22, and then again on Dec. 29 and Jan. 5 (private tours can be arranged as well). The display relies for a large part on the generosity of others, many of whom Mallett has met through Friends of the Creche (a worldwide society dedicated to the Nativity). Many come from private collections.

 Among these are pieces from Msgr. Gregory Ace, pastor of St. Padre Pio Parish in Kleinburg, Ont. Ace has a fascination with Nativity scenes passed on to him by his grandfather, he told The Catholic Register in 2015. He has more than 1,000 Nativity sets from around the world and each year loans various pieces for display at schools, city halls and other churches, including St. James. Others in the collection come from Mallett herself, who has travelled extensively and seeks out creches on her journeys.

“I’m looking at one now I brought back from the Czech Republic and it’s all made from corn husk,” she said.

Mallet says she’s blessed to be able to put the exhibit on each year, but isn’t sure how long she will carry on. She’s 90 but still loves taking this on, though she said we’ll see how much longer she can continue. 

“I’m just going ahead with it the way I’ve always done it,” she said.

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