By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff
ATTLEBORO, Mass. — As the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in Attleboro hearkens in the 61st year of its annual Christmas Festival of Lights, this year’s theme, “Jesus Light of Life,” seems fitting as the shrine’s international crèche collection has expanded to include an additional 1,228 crèches — truly making Jesus the light in the life of the festival.
Donated by an anonymous benefactor, the additional crèches brings the total displayed at the shrine to more than 2,000. The original display was the heart and soul of Father Manuel Pereira, M.S., coordinator of the Portuguese ministries, who has been collecting crèches since his youth: “I’ve always had a thing for the Nativity,” he said. “When I couldn’t afford to buy, I would make one myself out of paper and cardboard; those were my first sets. Then I started working with clay, and made a few pieces out of clay.”
His own collection is on display at the shrine, and as Father Pereira walked around the room looking at the new additions, he kept stopping to gaze at each unique crèche, often stooping down to see the details and to appreciate each individual display in all its Spiritual glory: “They’re all beautiful,” said Father Pereira.
The new additions to the international crèche display started with a phone call to the director of the shrine, Father Cyriac Mattathilanickal, from the benefactor. Once all the arrangements had been made, the benefactor and a few friends came to the shrine to arrange and label each crèche display. It took two months of painstakingly packing, moving and unpacking the display until it resembled how the benefactor wanted it — displayed just how each crèche had been in the home, right down to many of the curios cabinets used, which were also owned by the benefactor.
The result is a breathtaking visual of hundreds of artist depictions of the Holy Family using every type of material imaginable. From tin to glass, to wood and cloth — even tightly-rolled newspapers and soda cans have been used to create the Holy Family. Many of the crèche displays pay homage to the culture from which they have been created, like a few of the South American crèches whose color choices are the bright hues associated with the South American culture. Almost every country in the world is represented, including the United States, Netherlands, China, India, Guatemala, Egypt, Kenya, Venezuela, Czechoslovakia and Europe.
Even the Christmas tree — also owned by the benefactor — is adorned with ornaments that depict the Nativity.
“The artists — not only show the story of Jesus and the birth of Jesus — but how it inspired these artists to create the same story all over the world but in different imagery, even using parts from their own country,” said Father Pereira. “The artists were captivated by this story, and to produce these things artistically, it’s amazing.”
Brother David Eubank, M.S., shrine publicist and young adult ministry coordinator, was drawn to a very realistic-looking baby in a crib; “The hair is just awesome,” he said. “It’s porcelain. It just sticks out to me.”
And that’s the appeal for those walking through the display, said Brother Eubank: “Certain Nativity sets speak to certain people, and when they come they will roam around but be drawn to one particular Nativity set that makes them in awe about the whole season of Christmas.”
Not only will people be drawn to crèches for their beauty, Father Pereira added, but also to connect from where they came from: “It’s the international part of the people, where they’re raised, and to see things here from Africa, India, Senegal — it’s amazing.”
The different styles, added Brother Eubank, “depict one simple scene from the Bible in many different ways according to [the artist’s] culture.”
The outdoor courtyard abuts the crèche display area and the stained-glass crèches hanging from the large windows will reflect the light of the fire pits as families roast marshmallows and drink hot chocolate — an unintentional but fully welcome connection to this year’s theme.
“When you look at each crèche — and you look at our theme, ‘Jesus Light of Life’ — this display really brings it out, that Jesus is the perfect gift from God for the season,” said Brother Eubank. “It you keep that in mind, and you look at the crèches, [you see] how a simple Babe has brought Salvation to the world.”
During the Festival of Lights, there will be concerts, Masses, photos with Santa Claus, nightly illumination of the lights, and other events. A full schedule of the festival can be found online: www.lasalette-shrine.org, click on the Christmas Lights link.