It's a story heard before, something sparks a love in childhood, a love that continues on past the growing up years. In Mark Gilligan's case it started when he was a child. His father was very religious and took the job of setting up the nativity under the Christmas tree seriously.
"We were taught it was very special and not a toy. But that wouldn't stop me from secretly laying under the tree and slightly rearranging the figures."
When Mark was in 8th grade he was given a set of the Holy Family, made by Catholic Statuary. The pieces were 12" figures of Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child.
That was the real beginning of his collecting. At that time, growing up in Iowa, there were Kresge and Woolworth stores that would have nativity pieces for next to nothing. "So whenever I had a little money, no matter where I went, I could find something that attracted my eye".
Soon all of Mark's friends and family knew he was a collector and he would get creches as presents. Cowboy, contemporary, a teepee nativity with buffalo in the place of donkeys, all of these unusual sets received have special meanings for Mark.
Friends of the Creche
Mark said at first he was a little embarrassed at what he collected, that is until he read about the group, Friends of the Creche,. There are about 600 members and a quarterly magazine, as well as a yearly convention.
Friends of the Creche, an organization "dedicated to furthering the tradition of the creche. Friends of the Creche is a nonsectarian, nonpolitical, and nonprofit organization for those who collect, exhibit, study, create, or simply treasure Christmas Nativity scenes."
Through the Creche conventions he was able to find another chalkware, hand-painted set like his parents had when they were first married. Mark would also find that people would give him misplaced pieces, so he tries to find who is missing certain figures and find a family for the odd pieces.
Because of his collecting and expertise Mark is often asked advice on when and where something was made, helps find the missing pieces and will even give advice and general worth estimates.
Currently Mark has over 100 sets that he rotates, as well as loans out and displays at lectures he gives. Mark says he displays about eight sets all summer long, more during the holidays. He also does the history of the creches for churches and sets up a large creche for a large Catholic hospital each year.
On His Wish List
Although he has no idea where he would store it or how it would be displayed, Mark would dearly love to have the largest Hummel set. "The figures are unbelievably beautiful. My favorite of which is the Infant of Krumbad, a gift made by M.I. Hummel for an infirmary for tuberculous."
Mark suggests: Christmas in Miniature - Creches from around the World
Published by the Knights of Columbus Museum. It shows most every type of creche from early Christian days to present and is a good starting place for the collector. Order at: (203)753-4555. (Note: I also found it on Amazon)
Facts About Creches
- During WWII in Germany, Hitler had many of the German companies molds destroyed, so after the war they could no longer produce pieces. That is when plastic and paper mache figures came into being.
- Fontanini first started with paper mache and if you can find one of those earlier pieces, it's a great find.
- A German set is often called a Krippe, it usually is more pliable and easily handled by children.
- Santons are nativity figures produced in France. In the traditional set there could be several dozen figures representing village life with shop characters, etc. The tradition started of putting a fence around the nativity set and inside the fence was the holy area. Outside the fence, not so holy. There would usually be a woman figure shown stealing wood, but inside the fence so that the policeman could not get her. Sanctuary at it's best.
- In the Hispanic culture are similar sets, but instead of the woman stealing wood inside the fence, one will look for a young boy peeing. It's become the custom to see who can find that figure on the Epithany.