I visited the Many Mangers exhibition at St Martin in the Woods church this weekend, not knowing quite what to expect.
Well, obviously I was expecting nativity scenes. But the flyer stated “over 100 from all over the world”. Really? Where was a small church in Chandler’s Ford going to get hold of such a variety?
The answer was simple yet amazing. From local parishioners. Dozens of people had come forward with their cherished nativity scenes, lending them to the church for a few days before they took on their annual role as part of the family’s Christmas decorations.
A helpful leaflet gave details of the background to each model. One common topic came out loud and clear. These scenes all had their own family history; sometimes going back decades. Each year they are brought out from storage, and each year they evoke particular memories to their owners. How they were made; where they were bought; who broke them; who mended them; and, in one case, how the Baby Jesus disappeared, only to reappear in the pocket of dad’s best suit at Easter (presumably the next time he wore it).
Nativity scenes from far-flung corners of the world had been bought as souvenirs of travels. Wherever the set came from, the scene was familiar: Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, shepherds, wise men, and a few animals (no Catalan caganers, though). But each country portrayed the human elements in local style.
The three wise men, I learned, are sometimes thought to represent the three then-known continents of the world: Europe, Africa and Asia. In this scene, from Mexico, they also represent youth, middle-age and old-age.
All in all, a fascinating display of nativity scenes that were similar yet different; familiar yet surprising. And a great outreach opportunity for the parish of Chandler’s Ford at the start of the Advent season.