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The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Christmas Decorations

The most beautiful Christmas decorations I have ever seen are at The Metropolitan Museum of Art,  where their Christmas tree and Neapolitan Baroque crèche have been the highlight of the display since 1957, when Loretta Hines Howard, who had the idea of presenting the elaborate Nativity scene within a Christmas tree, angels swirling upwards to the crowning star, gave her collection to the museum. Mrs Howard’s daughter and grand-daughter have continued the tradition and more than two hundred 18th-century Neapolitan crèche figures have been added.

This display, which you can see here in close-up on you tube  (2.52 minutes), mingles three basic elements that are traditional to 18th-century Naples: the Nativity, with adoring shepherds and their flocks; the procession of the three Magi and their exotically dressed retinue; and a crowd of  townspeople and peasants. The theatrical scene is enhanced by sheep, goats, horses, a camel, and an elephant—and by background pieces that create a dramatic setting for the Nativity, including the ruins of a Roman temple, several Italianate houses, and a typical fountain with a lion’s-mask waterspout.

We saw in the previous post, A Christmas Miscellany, that creation of the Nativity scene is attributed to St Francis. The custom reached its height in 18th-century Naples, where local families, often assisted by professional stage directors, vied to outdo each other in presenting elaborate displays, using the finest sculptors of the period (including Giuseppe Sammartino and his pupils Salvatore di Franco, Giuseppe Gori, and Angelo Viva) to model the terracotta heads and shoulders of the figures.

If you are as entranced by these figures as I was when I first saw them in December 1968, you would perhaps rather not know that the museum also has, in my opinion, the best musum shop in the world. I began collecting one item a year from here in the 1970s, and still





have the pair of baubles which I decorated myself from one of their kits, as well as the beautiful standing angel. These days I try to limit myself just to their angel of the year. Here is their angel for 2011: as seems to be the fashion these days, their sale has just started.

But why do we decorate our homes at all? There is a fascinating blog post of 19 December 2011 on ‘the Psychology of Christmas’, which I recommend to you in its entirety. Probably most encouraging from the point of view of the readers of Lay Anglicana is this finding:

More happiness was reported when family and religious experiences were especially salient, and lower well-being occurred when spending money and receiving gifts predominated. Engaging in environmentally conscious consumption practices also predicted a happier holiday, as did being older and male. In sum, the materialistic aspects of modern Christmas celebrations may undermine well-being, while family and spiritual activities may help people to feel more satisfied.

So, what you have always known in your heart to be true is now confirmed by Tim Kasser and Kennon Sheldon in their article: ‘What makes for a merry Christmas?’






The image of the Christmas tree is reproduced from the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, from where I also obtained the background information.

2 comments on this post:


Thank you for this, Laura; and for reminding us of the Met’s Nativity tree. I was there one year when they were setting it up & never got to see it in all its glory. Entirely agree about the Met’s museum shop being the best there is. I have one or two treasured items from there.

Also, if your readers can stomach his agnostic scepticism, I recommend Simon Jenkins; column in today’s Guardian: I captures something good and true about the British Christmas and the place of the CofE in our national life.

With every blessing for the Feast.

23 December 2011 12:14
UKViewer said...

I suspect that a merry christmas has been connected with alcohol consumption.

For me, a Happy Christmas is one where families are reconciled and are able to gather together around the table and share a meal in grace and love. Which reminds me of the Holy Family at the first christmas where Joseph and Mary welcomed Jesus into the world and the mystery and miracle that the event was.

23 December 2011 16:26

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