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Crèchemania Blog

Christmas 2014

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Christmas came early this year — in a practice room far away from home, playing Christmas carols on the recorder and accompanied at the piano by my friend Taesub...

Mother and Child — and Santa Claus? No, it's St. Basil, who brings toys to Greek children on New Year's Day. Greek pop-up card from 1971; the Crechemania Collection. 
"A Happy Christmas," courtesy of a vintage Greek pop-up Christmas card. 

There's a drawer in the attic that holds so many memories of Christmases past.

Almost a hundred Greek pop-up cards from the 1950s and '60s that open to reveal a Christmas scene — and warm wishes from family, uncles, aunts, cousins and friends.

"Pyrgos, 21 December, 1971," begins one, shown above, with Mother and Child — and Santa Claus? No, it's St. Basil in a Santa suit, waving a Greek flag and opening the door to a New Year. (St. Basil brings presents to Greek children on New Year's Day.)

It's my custom as December 25 approaches to open that drawer, open those cards, and display them for Christmas.

But this year, as Christmas approached, I was far away from home, gathering images and stories for my upcoming In Search of the Nativity book. Instead of reading Christmas wishes on vintage-pop up cards, I was reading them on my inbox. "Dear Alexis, Merry Christmas! I have graduated from college and now am working in Columbus. If you're anywhere near, I'd love to see you and play duets!!"

It was signed by Taesub, a young Korean whom I first met as a student three years ago in Sheridan, Wyoming.
He had been playing the piano at a church I was photographing. Taesub's fingers were flying on the keyboard when I stopped by to say I wish my presence hadn't been too intrusive.

"Not at all," he good-naturedly replied, wondering what I was doing. "I'm working on a book," I said, and, thinking of the sheet music and recorder in my car I added, "Would you like to play some duets?"

A dash outside, and now Handel's Recorder Sonata in C major was on the piano stand, music that Taesub had never seen before. Yet every 16th note of the complex baroque keyboard accompaniment, every trill, every inverted mordant was there! The only reason we stopped is because Taesub had to go to work.

Taesub at the piano in a borrowed practice room. 
Three years went by, and as I was drove through the continental United States photographing my book, Taesub graduated. And now there's a message from him telling me that he's working inColumbus, the very next town I was about to drive through.

"Do you have your recorder and music with you?" Taesub asks when I call. And here we are again, not in a church, but a college music practice room, playing not Handel, but wonderful arrangements from The International Book of Christmas Carols. Besides the beautiful carols from many lands, this marvelous book sometimes includes a second, descant voice. Played by the haunting voice of the recorder, this second melody beautifully harmonizes with the piano accompaniment.

A couple of hours later, when I find out that Taesub has not had supper, we drive to a Greek restaurant for a village salad with feta cheese, moussaka, and baklava.

Then it was time to bid goodbye to Taesub, and head to Detroit to visit my good friends Sam and Voula. Her morning spread of crunchy, sweet, koulourakia and honey-dripping melomakarouna pastries reminded me of my youth in Greece.

After three days of reminiscing with my old friends it was time to head to Dayton, Ohio, where I was hoping to photograph the Baker Collection of paper nativities in the Marian Library.

Celso Rosa at the opening of his Sao Paolo "Presepe di Carta" exhibition. (Photo by Sonia Balady.) 
Alas, I find no paper nativities there, but a beautiful collection of crèches from many lands assembled by Fr. Johann Roten, Director of Research and Special Projects. Fr. Roten, a world authority on the Blessed Virgin Mary, welcomes me and eloquently discourses about the meaning of the Nativity and the crèche.

An added delight while in Dayton is seeing the crèches of Judy Davis — whom I visited in California so many years ago — and that Judy has bequeathed to the Marian Library.

There may have not been paper nativities in Dayton, but in Sao Paolo, the The Museum of Sacred Art of Sao Paolo was chock-full of them, featuring the exhibition "Presepe di Carta, Paper Nativities," The Collection of Celso Battistini Castro Rosa."

Who could have guessed that paper nativities would take over the front page of newspapers and be featured in the national TV news in Brazil? And how kind of Celso to include his his exhibition — on its very own pedestal, to boot — Crèchemania's Cuckoo Crèche.
I was watching on the Internet my buddy Celso giving interviews at the museum, and I marveled at the wonderful collection he has created. Congratulations, Celso!

I may not have been able to visit Celso's exhibition in Sao Paolo, but the Art Institute of Chicago was hosting "Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections" that I visited at the National Art Gallery in Washington, D.C. not long ago.

The priceless Nativity, shown below — that I first saw and photographed at its home, the Benaki Museum in Athens, Greece — is just one of the treasures at the Art Institute show, an exquisite example of Byzantine iconography.

I'm now about to leave the Windy City behind and get on I-90 heading home. I'm munching on Voula's cookies and wishing you a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy and Healthy New Year!


One of my absolute favorite depictions of The Nativity, a masterful 15th century Byzantine icon, the Benaki Museum, Athens, Greece. 

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