I love Christmas; and I enthusiastically collect manager scenes. I received my first one in 1952 from my parents, Al and Jeannie, when I was three years old. We were living in the parsonage of an old country church in Lower Naches, Washington. The photo above was taken this year. Yes, I still have this ancient manger, which was made from cardboard, lithographed paper and painted chalk figures. I’ve treasured it for nearly my entire life, so you can be sure I take good care of it.
In addition to my American-made manger, I collect folk-art mangers, or retablos, which are imported chiefly from Peru and Mexico. Some are made from wood, some from clay, some from gourds. Some are even created from match boxes. The Nativity figures are often made of clay; however, artisans may use a mixture of potato flour and water to form the scene’s figures. They may also use papier mache.
Shown above is my permanent display of Peruvian/Mexican retablos and accessory figures, including an El Salvadoran enameled cross and a carved model of the Christ of the Andes. This is constantly on view in a rustic cabinet in my living room. I could never bring myself to closet this display eleven months out of the year!
Here is the piece de resistance of my collection: my largest, most ornate Peruvian retablo. I purchased it new, approximately 25 years ago. It is made of painted wood, clay or papier mache figures, and it is held together with small leather hinges. It portrays an almost-celestial scene; one which I find spiritual and inspirational. The quality of craftmanship is quite high. Newer retablos are not always as well-made.
This little scene is indeed made from a matchbox. I purchased it, and most of my Peruvian collection from the now-defunct import store, Seattle, Washington’s Trident Imports. Sadly, the store closed its doors in 1997, following the passing of its proprietor. I had made a practice of visiting the huge emporium the day after Christmas, when I was able to pick up these great little displays at half-price. That is how I built my collection. At Christmastime, I hang this little treasure on my tree.
These three small retablos or dioramas are made from painted clay. They feature simple Nativity figures in their interiors. These also hang from my tree at Christmas.
For variety’s sake, I am inserting this Peruvian candelabrum-style creche here. It is rather primitively constructed from heavy, painted clay. While the little figures of Joseph, Mary and Jesus, as well as the animals and birds, were most likely formed by hand, the candelabrum itself appears to have been formed in a mold. This differentiates it immediately from an artisan-crafted piece. It’s simply an average set. However, it is charming, and prettily-painted. I purchased it around 1995. For its type, that makes it a newer piece, actually. And that helps explain why it was chiefly made in a mold, in a rather hurried manner.
Gourds are often incorporated by Peruvian creche makers. In creations such as these, the Nativity scene is often paired with a scene depicting traditional Peruvian musicians. To create these, the artist carves the gourd’s outside, then cuts it in half, hollows it out, paints the interior, and inserts figures made of clay/potato paste/papier mache.
Here is a similar retablo; however, it is made of clay which has been formed and painted to represent a seashell. Below is the reverse side, which has been beautifully painted.
Here is a small, doored Retablo, one which again pairs a Nativity scene with a scene featuring musicians. The painting here is especially fine.
Above, is yet another doored Retablo. I love this style, because it is beautiful whether the doors are open, or closed, as below.
This retablo doesn’t feature a Nativity scene; however it features the traditional musicians so often found in retablos, so I group it with my Nativity display. It is unique in that it has only one door. It has a certain lop-sided look to it. Below, it is depicted with the door closed.
This unusual retablo is made from bamboo; the figures are made from painted, dried, mashed potatoes! I know this, because my late wife and I bought it directly from the visiting Peruvian artist, at Sante Fe, New Mexico’s great folk art store, Jackalope. The retablo features not only a manager scene in its first section; it also features other scenes from Peruvian life and/or folklore. We picked this up on our late-80’s car trip from Seattle, WA, to New Mexico. Seeing the West and Southwest via car, staying in inexpensive, quaint little motels with kitchenettes and vintage swimming pools along the way, was unforgettable.
My collection includes one ceramic Nativity scene created in Tonola, Jalisco, Mexico. When I encountered this beautifully-decorated, used set ten years ago, I noticed it was missing one of the magi, and perhaps an angel. But it is the only example I’ve ever found, so I acquired it. I display it year-round, in my living room.
Here are two additional retablos from my collection, which do not depict manger scenes:
This retablo depicts a Peruvian hat seller. The iconic hats of Peru can be seen, offered for sale. This piece is perhaps 25 years old. I purchased it used, so cannot date it exactly. I bought it at the old Westlake Antique Mall, from my friend, manager Bill “Blenko Bill” Agle.
This retablo, which I purchased twenty years ago at the wonderful Jackalope in Sante Fe, New Mexico, is somewhat different from the others in my collection. It is only partially painted, so that the wood it is constructed from can be seen. Plus, it has no doors. Not only that, but: is that Elvis? It looks like Elvis! I find it humorous that, when not depicting the Nativity scene, the artist has chosen to depict another King: the King of Rock and Roll!
I am always on the lookout for traditional depictions of the Nativity. I am looking for those with some age on them, as the quality of crafting is usually higher. I’m not enamored with “traditional” art which is partially pre-made via the use of molded products. I love the fact that extra care and effort has been used in the creation of the retablos in my collection. And I love that they are dedicated to the celebration of my favorite holiday!
Merry Christmas; Feliz Navidad!