St. Wendel: Home to a collection of creches
January 6, 2009
The cow bone, boiled until soft and the color of alabaster, bore the cherubic face of the baby Jesus.
While some might find a nativity scene fashioned from cattle remains a bit macabre or just gross, Karl Heindl was happy to get it.
"It took 16 hours to make," he said about the display, a gift from artist Peter Lebek.
For Heindl, it is a new addition to the hundreds of Christmas crèches on display at Missionshaus monastery in St. Wendel, a small town in western Germany. He has been collecting and creating the crèches for more than 45 years. Counting the pocket-size ones, there are more than 1,000 on display.
Many are fashioned from materials unique to the place they came from: coconuts from Hawaii, tree bark from Germany’s Black Forest, red clay from Italy, shells from the shores of five continents. One paper crèche has stood since the 19th century, while another has a more recent carbon date — it was crafted from Legos building blocks.
Some are hard to identify as traditional crèches, such as the oblong wooden figures in a nativity display from Rwanda. But to make it into Heindl’s collection, they all must have two items: a baby Jesus and a crib.
"It’s a way to understand the birth of Christ in pictures," Heindl said. "A way to tell the story without words."
St. Francis of Assisi came up with the idea of the nativity scene in 1223 in Greccio, Italy. According to legend, actors donned costumes to play the parts of Mary and Joseph. Biographers of Assisi, however, contest this account. While a live ox and donkey brayed, there were no costumed performers and all that was laid in the crib was a bale of hay — it was likely impossible to get a baby to sit still without crying.
The nativity tradition spread, and everywhere it went the scene was re-imagined with new figurines and settings, some having very little to do with the baby Jesus. Take, for instance, the addition of the caganer, or pooping boy, to the Catalonian nativity scene. Why he is defecating is a mystery, but the red-faced boy has been relieving himself in this holiest of scenes since the 17th century. A scatological "Where’s Waldo," children delight in finding him with his pants down and a startled look on his face — he is usually tucked in a corner, far away from the manger.
Heindl, who helped build most of the St. Wendel crèches, revels in using different materials in his scenes. There are common wood, wax and clay figurines, but there are also some fashioned from metal and leather. Even bread dough, baked until hard and then covered in a lacquer veneer, will work in a pinch.
"It’s not only the materials," he said. "The most precious ones are unique because of the idea."
Heindl built a rotating triptych, starting with a wooden high-relief of the baby Jesus found in Africa. Recently, a Texas family marveled at Christ’s birth in a cotton igloo, with an Inuit offering of freshly caught fish as a gift.
"It’s so unusual," said Laurie Ellis, who was visiting from Ramstein Air Base with her husband and daughter. "It’s amazing to see how they tell the story of Christmas throughout the world."
Lacey Ellis, 13, added: "At first, I didn’t want to come, but it’s really awesome to see how they adapt it."
For Heindl, who crafted his first crèche at age 8 — it’s part of the collection — creating the same scene over and over never gets dull. Rather, it lets him perfect and experiment with the craft like the old master painters.
For next year, he is planning a crèche made of only cork.
Directions: From the Kaiserslautern/Ramstein/Landstuhl area, take Autobahn 62 in the direction of Trier and exit at Kusel. Turn left and follow the highway toward St. Wendel. At the town of Niederkirchen, take highway L307 (a right turn) and follow it until a sign for the Missionshaus is visible, about three kilometers farther on. Turn left on Missionshausstrasse and continue until you reach the parking lot. The building on the left houses the exhibit.
Times: The exhibit is open 10 a.m. to noon and 2-6 p.m. daily until Feb. 2, including Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Costs: Admission is 2 euros for adults and 1 euro for students. The Missionshaus grounds and imposing Missionshaus and church will be open for viewing as well.
Food: St. Wendel has many restaurants and cafes in the heart of town that are clustered together and within walking distance of the Missionshaus. According to the Germany tourism Web site, the influence of French cuisine is obvious in St. Wendel’s restaurants, though there’s still plenty of room on the menu for an array of traditional dishes, such as potato dumplings. International cuisine is also popular in St. Wendel.
Information: For more on St. Wendel’s attractions and suggested tour itineraries, go to www.sankt-wendel.de/en/culture/markets/christmas-market or e-mail Touristinfo@holzer-gmbh.de.