The Christmas Archives


In 1983 during a research trip to Europe, Countess Maria von Staufer had the pleasure to meet the president of the Austrian Krippenfreund. From a long and interesting meeting, which opened her eyes to many things happening in the European Christmas Crib scene, one phrase kept coming back, and not pleasantly! That phrase was "Britain has nothing to offer in the field of Nativity art".

An annoyingly true fact. British Crib art was squashed effectively by the Puritan restrictions, which would allow nothing 'idolatrous'.

However, the Countess returned to Britain determined to redress the statement. With the help of sympathetic editors of Crafts magazines she enlisted the aid of some 40 British craftspeople, working in materials as diverse as glass and straw, slate and paper. While her craftspeople worked on their own masterpieces, Countess maria was not idle. She collected Folk art Cribs from all over the world, even from then Eastern Bloc countries, 130 in all, and some priceless exhibits on loan from private collections and museums.

Within twelve months there were 240 forty Cribs ready for exhibition, and an International exhibition planned at the newly opened and very prestigious Barbican Centre in London. The launch reception was a glittering affair with the diplomats from all the countries represented. From 18th century chinese watercolours on silk to a carving of the Magi on Slate in Celtic style from a welsh monumental mason, the exhibition was a major success, and the Society of Nativitists was founded.

The forty founding members went on to create their cribs and sell them all over Britain and abroad. Britain at last had some thing to offer in the field of Nativity art. Maybe not in the same sense as the long traditions of the Cribmaker families in Europe, but a start. The Society had the sponsorship of the Benedictines Monks at Cardiff in Wales, and a venue for activities and events.

In 1985 the first British Crib Competition sponsored by the Society brought in over 100 entries from all over the British Isles. And the Society was inaugurated into the Federation in Italy. In 1987 the competition had become International with entries from several English Speaking Countries. The winning entry that year was an antiqued foil Crib from America, the second was a copy of a Polish Szopke made by one of the Society founder members.

The Society received a letter and blessing from His Holiness Pope John Paul II, encouraging them to expand into all the English Speaking Countries. This they did, with sad results, too much administration and financial burden lay on shoulders which were not ready for the task! Ill health, and the loss of the Benedictine sponsors, who moved out of Cardiff, handing the parish over to the Secular clergy added to the problems, and in 1992 the Society had to close its doors to further activity and membership. Now the membership is kept informed of world happenings in the Crib scene by a yearly newsletter. One day, when time and volunteer assistance is at hand, the Society will flourish again.

One thing which became apparent during the ten years of the Society's work was a pattern in Nativity art in Britain.

Different countries tended to unconsciously specialise in a specific craft for Nativity art. The obvious crafts of the woodcarver are well known throughout the whole of Central Europe - Italy, Austria, Germany. Sculpture is also well known in these areas, as it is in Spain. But there are 'specialities'

The main British crafts guilds to work in Nativity and Crib art prior to the puritan banning, were the Royal Guild of Embroiderers and the Alablasters. Embroidered Nativity pictures were used in churches, to adorn homes, for priests vestments, and fancywork, such as Stumpwork Boxes.

Over the years of the Society, of the many different craftspeople who offered their work, a third were needleworkers! So if it achieved no other object, the Society proved that the British Nativity Art was and is still, needleworked art!

Stumpwork was a kind of raised and padded embroidery. Goldwork was a type of embroidery which used gold threads in long and short stitch.