Is there really a 300-year-old créche in Bethlehem?
A Connecticut Christmas: Celebrating the Holiday in Classic New Style
Photo Caryn B. Davis
When it comes to Christmas, few traditions are as sacred as celebrating the crèche—the nativity scene where Jesus was born in a Bethlehem manger. From setting up ceramic figurines on living room tables, to illuminating life-sized tableaus or larger-than-life inflatables on front yards, families have long loved to recreate the story of Jesus’ birth.
But there is one crèche that outdoes them all, sequestered in a simple white barn down a quiet dirt path some 6,000 miles away from Jesus’ birthplace—in another Bethlehem, here in Litchfield County. It belongs to the Abbey of Regina Laudis—the 400-acre home of 37 Benedictine nuns—and, unlike some cloistered parts of the property, is open to visitors, almost year-round.
“It really is exquisite, on so many levels,” says Mother Angéle Arbib, of the lavish 300-year-old display that’s been dubbed “the Rembrandt of crèches” by experts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “We want everyone to share in this experience, to behold this magnificence.”
Met conservators conducted a four-year restoration of the Neapolitan nativity scene that was given as a coronation gift to Victor Amadeus II, King of Sardinia, in 1720. Philanthropist Loretta Hines Howard obtained the collection and gave it to the Abbey in 1949.
Fiber optic lighting illuminates details of the life-like figures made of carved wood, terra cotta, jute and porcelain. The rosy-cheeked Mary holds the baby Jesus as the Three Kings, wearing colorful silks with gold embroidery, offer gifts in the hills of Naples, which is where the crèche’s original artists were from. “In December, we get thousands of visitors,” Mother Angele says. “They go to the local post office so they can get a “Bethlehem” postmark on their Christmas cards, then they come here. It’s tradition.”