One of the joys of archives and archival work is the opportunity the collections offer to explore the great variety of human invention and artistry across both time and space, as well as the ways in which common ideas and images endure through different cultures and generations.
As people all around the world begin their celebrations of Advent, this month we delve into the many intriguing variations in our collections on one of the most enduring of Christmas images – the Nativity.
From the origins of the story of Jesus Christ’s birth in the world of first century Palestine, to Western Europe and North America, and across the globe in India, China, and the Philippines, a review of just a few of the images of the nativity held by the Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections demonstrates the many ways the Christmas story has been reflected and reimagined in a myriad of different times and places.
One of the older nativity scenes in our collections is an 1867 print originally published by the American lithograph firm, Currier & Ives. This image of “The Birth of our Saviour” comes from Special Collection 233: Sacred Arts Collection, an extensive collection of books, pamphlets, and artwork depicting early American Christianity and religious life.
Before the advent of widespread photography, Currier & Ives’ lithographs were a popular source for images of then current American life, events, and interests. Known for their bold and direct style with clean lines and colors, the prints were widely used in illustrated newspapers or as artwork in many nineteenth century American homes.
One of the richest collections for images of the nativity in the Archives is Collection 636: Ephemera of Religious Postcards. This collection consists of many hundreds of postcards, all related to evangelism or American religious history, some with messages, others unsent.
Taking advantage of the new opportunities for artistic communication offered by the development of photography throughout the nineteenth century, these two nativity postcards capture a more modern expression of the very old story.
Created sometime between 1900 and 1915, the images show an evolving interaction between new technologies and the traditional European artistic renderings of the nativity scene. The creators of the postcard on the left also employed some additional editorial creativity, adding color and other illustrations to an originally monochromatic photograph.
Beyond innovations in style, these nativity scene postcards likewise demonstrate innovations in communication. Itself a new medium for mail, introduced only in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, early postcards prohibited any communication on the address side of the card, requiring all messages to be scribbled around the front image. Only in the early years of the twentieth century were the divided line message/address postcards introduced and popularized. Note the brief instruction on the card above specifying the newly allowed conversational use of the address side.
While paintings, artistic photographs, drawings, and fine art are a major source for images of the nativity, every advent season many people around the world also encounter the Christmas story by attending or participating in live nativity plays. Through these plays, communities around the world recreate and reimagine the dress of first century Palestine, add local characters, and give new faces to ancient figures.
Hosted in the Urdaneta Auditorium in the Philippines, this large cast from a local Methodist Episcopal Church presented their Christmas play to more than five thousand people.
Held in Collection 210: Records of the World Bible Study Fellowship, the reverse of the photograph includes a message of thanks for financial and spiritual support from Rev. Aquilino Marron, pastor of the church, to Josephine Wang, founder of the Fellowship. Rev. Marron concludes his short message with a heartfelt reflection of the performance, writing simply, “the Lord was greatly glorified.”
An image of a second nativity play comes from Collection 379: Records of the Woman’s Union Missionary Society. Founded in 1860, the society sent woman missionaries all across Asia, including China, Japan, India, and Pakistan. A central ministry of the organization was education, especially for girls. This nativity play was held at the WUMS Bridgeman Memorial School in Shanghai, likely before 1941.
Departing from the photorealism of the previous nativity scenes, the following colorful images come from the Christian Home Committee of the National Christian Council of India.
For several decades in the 20th century, the committee was devoted to strengthening the Christian ideas of family life among believers on the subcontinent. Beginning probably in the early 1940s and influenced by a similar program in China, the committee sponsored an annual, weeklong Christian Home Festival. The festival was intended not only to show families how to have devotions together, but to encourage them to play together, jointly plan their lives around Christian principles, and find ways to serve the church and larger community within the local context of the culture and traditions of India.
Among the activities of the committee was the distribution of simple and colorful handbills and posters that could be hung around the home and church. The handbills included scenes from the life of Jesus Christ, as well as contemporary Christians practicing their Biblical faith. These images of the birth of Christ can be found in Collection 177, Box 8, Folder 12. None of the handbills are dated but are likely from sometime between the 1940s and 1960s.
Captured in photographs, inked in lithographs, or drawn in color illustrations, these nativity scenes depict a constant truth in infinite variety. As we begin this week to celebrate that truth, Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections wishes all a blessed and merry Christmas season.
These collections and hundreds more related to American Christian history and religious life, as well as global missions and evangelism, can all be searched through our collections database.