Don’t miss Grundisburgh Cribfest this week
- Credit: Archant
Enjoy hundreds of nativity scenes and cribs in village church
If the Rev Canon Clare Sanders were paraded as a game-show guest with a mystery hobby, she’d have the contestants scratching their heads and frowning. For who would guess that Clare is a collector of nativity scenes? Big time. The Suffolk rectory where she lives has 70 or 80 stored in boxes in a large walk-in wardrobe.
Some are tiny, some sizeable. Some are “traditional” scenes; others more unusual. Such as a couple of Chinese paper-cuts.
She got those on a holiday to China marking the end of her son’s school exams.
At one point Clare watched a dance by young people with mental handicaps. “I suddenly thought ‘Glory be! That’s the story of Jesus up there: from the annunciation” – when the angel Gabriel told Mary she was going to have a child – “right through to the resurrection.”
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Not the thing one would expect to see in The People’s Republic of China.
“Through an interpreter, I said to the girl in charge of the centre, ‘Why have you got the Christian story up on the wall?’ and she said ‘What story? I do not know the story.’
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“So why have you got it up there? ‘We found an old book, and it’s good fine-motor control for the students to learn this ancient art of cutting.’”
Clare was intrigued. Were they willing to sell them? She bought two, at £3 each and rolled them up.
“Later in the day, I realised I hadn’t got them with me. I’d left them in the loo of a department store. So we went haring back to this toilet. Couldn’t get in there. It seemed blocked. Nobody spoke English.
“I was almost in tears and went to the desk in the middle of the store, where my husband was drawing pictures to explain what had happened, when this little cleaning lady came up with my pictures. I threw my arms around her and gave her this big, big hug. So… lost and found. They were very special. I didn’t expect to find them in time.”
Clare’s passion for nativity scenes began 15 or more years ago, when she was vicar of Earl Soham, Cretingham and Ashfield-cum-Thorpe. During a weekend in Vienna she saw in the crypt of the cathedral of St Stephen “these wonderful cribs. And thought ‘I could collect those…’”
Back in Suffolk, she noticed a poster about an exhibition of nativity scenes in Aldeburgh – featuring the collection put together by BBC radio presenter and writer Libby Purves. Clare went to see it, was inspired, and a new interest was born.
What was the attraction?
“Well, obviously, the story is one I’m extremely familiar with! But what I discovered was, the cribs made me think about it in a much more creative and different way, and opened up the imagination, and found depths in the story that had been hidden.”
“It’s such a well-known story that you think you know it all. But you look at the cribs that come from Italy, for instance, and see that each nativity story is set in that person’s village (the maker’s village). And, in the French tradition, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker will be in the scene. It’s about Christ being born again – in each and every age, in each and every community, in each and every person.
“I always remember showing one that came from Zimbabwe – and it wasn’t a crib; it was Mary and Joseph on the donkey, with the baby. There was a lady standing in front of it, crying. I went over and said ‘This has obviously touched you.’ She said ‘It’s from Zimbabwe, isn’t it? This is my story. I had to pick up everything and flee for my life. I know what it is to have to run because someone wants to kill me.’
“It’s very easy to hear the (nativity) story and romanticise it, almost; but, actually, looking at it in the context of today, with Aleppo and Mosul” – troubled cities in Syria and Iraq – “and the babies being born into those situations, and people running away in fear, it’s no different to the Herod of the day who wanted to kill this child.
“So, for me, cribs begin to unlock some of that bigger story; deeper story.”
Clare’s collection began to grow. She came across nativity scenes in charity shops and even commissioned a woodcarver in a poor mountainous village in Poland to make one. It cost £80 – probably the most she’s spent.
“My husband hasn’t told me I must stop,” she laughs. “He sometimes sets a price limit on them…” He, by the way, is the Rev Canon Mark Sanders, rector of St Michael’s at Framlingham.
“No, I don’t get them all out at home every Christmas!” adds former RE teacher Clare, “though I do choose a favourite.”
Many of them do get an outing every couple of years at Cribfest – a biennial celebration in the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Grundisburgh, near Woodbridge. It features hundreds of nativity scenes and lots more besides.
The festival was Clare’s idea, but many people are involved.
It was clearly meant to be. She remembers coming to Grundisburgh to be interviewed for the priest’s job about 11 years ago. She’d mentioned her interest in cribs in her application and was taken to the home of villagers Ann and Clive Willetts.
Their daughter’s Italian father-in-law, Neapolitan Ernesto Castiglione, is a master-craftsman nativity-scene maker. To see some was stunning.
The fifth festival is upon us. It will feature several hundred cribs, including many from Libby Purves’s famous collection.
Cribfest has a complementary theme. In 2014 it was angels. This year it’s Madonna and Child. “If we do it again, I think it will have to be the wise men: the magi. It gives interesting creative possibilities,” says Clare, who was initially priest-in-charge of Grundisburgh, Hasketon, Burgh and Boulge before adding Otley, Clopton, Ashbocking and Swilland.
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Clare insists Cribfest is a team effort. She’s gathered folk to give me a preview, and tells them “It’s all of you who do the really hard work and the creative stuff.”
Grundisburgh Art Group is a newbie, involved for the first time. Clare invited members to “use your imaginations” – no restrictions – and 10 lovely pieces have been inspired by the theme of Madonna and Child.
Jenny Taylor’s painting is one: based on an image that Clare loves. “That isn’t really my style. I’m more traditional,” she laughs. It’s oil on canvas. “There’s a lot of scraping going on, with a credit card! It was fun to do.”
Anne Ledgley has created a design that’s used on the “official” Christmas card, based on a locket.
Grundisburgh Primary is one of several schools producing interpretations using recycled materials. Here, when I visit, are children from Grundisburgh with their Madonna and Child triptych (a picture on panels), along with the mother and baby who sat for them as models!
There are cribs and a tree produced by local woodcarvers, and the fruits of several years’ labour by Grundisburgh Craft Group – a needlework set of nativity figures. Seventeen people and animals, to be precise.
Some have been seen at previous Cribfests, but this is the first time the complete cast will have appeared. “When you see the intricacy of the stitchwork, you will see why it’s taken so long,” says Clare.
“It all called for patience and good eyesight,” admits Pauline Coomber.
She and Heather Langdon laugh about how it all got a bit tight in the past, with the finished Mary arriving just in the nick of time.
Some appliqué nativity hangings are Heather’s handiwork. She did angels last time, and is always looking for patterns. “Christmas is my thing. My husband is getting a little bit stressed, wondering where they’re all going!”
Then there are two pieces of “community art work” – a mosaic-style Madonna and Child panel by the Rev Wendy Gourlay, made from about 1,000 cut-up recycled Christmas cards, and something similar from the church youth group.
“I love the juxtaposition of things like polar bears and camels!” she says. “The theology of it is that the faces and hands are the insides of the cards, with their messages of love and thanks to people.”
Ann and Clive Willetts have brought a table-full of those “presepe” nativity scenes made by Ernesto Castiglione, father-in-law of their daughter. Presepe is Italian for crib.
The Italian experts don’t do things by half. Mary, Joseph and Jesus are shown among a bigger village setting, and the detail is amazing: a tiny pizza oven, flashing away, for instance, and a fountain with running water.
With a master craftsman in the family, do the couple get a new scene each year? “Oh, no,” Ann laughs. “It’s not so easy to bring them over with easyJet any more!”
Not all sets are as cosy as those from Naples.
“There’s one, very striking, which comes from Bethlehem – with the nativity scene set against the wall and the wise men on the other side, and they cannot get through to the stable,” explains Clare. “Very powerful.”
Work on a long, long real-life wall started in 2002, when prime minister Ariel Sharon saw it as a shield to protect Israelis from Palestinian suicide bombers.
“We usually display it with photographs of the wall – so there are contemporary images of the reality of life in Bethlehem at this moment, which is a city under siege.” Does Clare have a favourite in her collection? “It’s a black set from Bangladesh. It has no facial features. If anything, the characters look like chess figures.
“Why is it a favourite? Because it’s so unusual. It’s totally black – no colour; just sculptured. Why no features? The only thing I can think of is that it was made within the Islamic culture and the face of God would never be portrayed. That would be really sacrilegious.
“For me, that means they’re Every Man, Every Woman. No one particular culture or class or creed.”
“I’ve never seen another like it. And that’s what this whole thing is about: giving people the opportunity to talk, explore, ask questions, and say ‘Never thought of that before…’”