Come December, every corner of Jaikumari Rajenesh’s house in Thiruvananthapuram gets a dash of Christmas colours in red, green and gold. But the decoration is not complete till she sets out her treasured 35-year-old Nativity set comprising baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, the three wise men, the angels, sheep, oxen and camels.
“That is when I feel the house is Christmas-ready. It is a porcelain set that I bought from Singapore and now it is a family tradition to arrange it on the first Sunday of December, in the beginning of the season of Advent. It begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Many families follow this practice,” says Jaikumari, who hails from Nagercoil.
Like her, every Christmas, Chennai resident Sheila D’Souza arranges her 40-plus-year old Nativity figurines that she bought from Mangalore. “Made of clay, the Nativity set is as good as new. I used to keep it for every Christmas till January 6 (Epiphany). However, this year, I have given it to the Alumni Club on Boat Club Road for their Christmas décor.”
The Nativity set that Vilma Vaz has, was passed down from her mother-in-law, Hilda Vaz, when she came to stay with her son around 2010. Says Vilma: “It has been with us since then. She had two sets, one that is quite big has Mary, Joseph and infant Jesus. The smaller set has several pieces such as the shepherds, the Magi and the angels in addition to the Holy Family.”
In Goa, an ivory figurine of infant Jesus in a crib is a family heirloom that is passed on from one generation to the other, says Natasha Fernandez, curator of the Museum of Christian Art in Goa.
Natasha explains that this precious possession is still part of the Nativity scene in certain homes in Goa. “We have two such exquisitely worked ivory figurines of Infant Jesus in the Museum. It is a fusion of India aesthetics and Christian art and the figure is adorned with anklets, bracelets and a waist band.”
However, the ivory figurines of Infant Jesus were for the affluent. Most families would settle for those available in neighbourhood shops selling gaily coloured Nativity sets with cribs and figurines. Most families would settle for those available in neighbourhood shops selling gaily coloured Nativity sets with cribs and figurines. Victor Hugo Gomes, founder-curator of Goa Chitra in Benaulim , says the set in his family home must be more than 50 years old. “After Christmas, it is taken down and stored carefully to be used next year. The crib was made by children in the village using material that was locally available. That was an interesting feature of Nativity scenes during our childhood.”
Italians were perhaps the first to put up Nativity scenes for Christmas. It is believed that St Francis of Assisi put up the first one in 1223, in Greccio, near Rome. The early Europeans who came to India brought the custom to India. Even today, almost all Catholic churches in India make elaborate arrangements for the Nativity scene that is erected during Christmas.
In Goa, there is a State-wide competition for the best crib that is conducted by the State government’s Directorate of Art and Culture, says Victor. “Now, as with modern pandals during Ganeshotsav and Durga Puja, some of the sets are mechanised and so one can see some of the figures move.”
Vintage Nativity sets have many takers on Etsy, where antique collectibles can cost anything from ₹3,000 to more than ₹2 lakh for a Nativity set made of olive wood from Bethlehem, believed to the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Jaikumari points out that now online portals and travel have made it easier to buy sets in willow wood, papier-mâché , ceramic, marble, crystal etc.
Vasantha Ross, settled in the US, became collecting pieces from the Nativity scene when her son gave her a figurine of the angel of remembrance. “I was going through a low phase after my husband’s demise. The angel lifted my spirits. And gradually, I began collecting the pieces for the Nativity scene whenever I came across one that I did not have. Both my sons have also been gifting me pieces to add to the collection in willow wood,” says Vasantha. She has a Nativity set made with banana pith that she picked up from a store in the US.
In Kerala, many of the locally made sets now come from Thrissur. Till a few years ago, Josarts in Kollam used to make statues for churches and crib sets for Christmas.
As Christmas becomes a globalised festival, the Nativity scene, from miniature sets on side tables to life-size ones in Churches and public squares, has become one of the most enduring images of Christmas.