Theta Alpha, an organization for New Church women, began making Nativities in 1941, and continued the tradition until the early 1990s. The Nativities were sent to families who did not live near a New Church congregation. This was part of a larger initiative by Theta Alpha to send religious materials throughout the year to children who could not attend New Church schools. The women of Theta Alpha were inspired in their production of Nativity sets by Emanuel Swedenborg’s concept that children are especially receptive to visual images, and can be introduced into deeper concepts by means of them.
“Children [in heaven] are taught especially by images suited to their natures, images that are unbelievably lovely and full of wisdom from within. In this way, there is gradually instilled into them an intelligence that derives its essence from goodness” (Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell ¶335).
The Nativity figures made during the 1940s were constructed from wire and crepe paper, but in 1951 Theta Alpha began a new initiative and started making chalkware figures. The sets assembled that first year included Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, one sheep, a manger, and a stable. They were initially made by teams of women working in the basement of Bryn Athyn Cathedral. Gypsum plaster (plaster of Paris) was poured into molds (see photos, below) and allowed to dry; then, after the figures had been extracted from the molds, they were carefully painted by hand (see photo, above). Suitable commercial figures were chosen to be used in the production of the latex molds, although records indicate that a few of the figures were original designs (e.g. one of the shepherds, and the baby Jesus).
Carita de Charms, chairman of the Creche Committee, reported on the work of 1951: “Not to my knowledge have we ever had such cooperation, such faithful working together of so many women to accomplish an end” (Carita de Charms, “Report of the Creche Figure Project,” Theta Alpha Journal 1952, 16).
In 1952 four shepherds and seven sheep were added to the scene, followed by three wise men and three camels in 1953. In the year 1952 alone, 255 sets were sent out to families in Africa, Canada, Denmark, England, Holland, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Palestine, Sweden, and to many locations within the United States.
During the 1950s, molds and information were sent to Australia, South Africa, England, and Canada so that members in these countries could make their own Nativities (Carita de Charms, “Creche Figure Project Report,” Theta Alpha Journal 1954, 9).
In time a system was worked out between Theta Alpha groups in the United States. Member groups in Glenview, Illinois, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, each provided one of the three sets that made up the complete Nativity scene. These sets were sent out to isolated families within the United States. Throughout the many years of production, countless members of Theta Alpha around the globe volunteered their time and energy to this project.
An example of one of these Theta Alpha chalkware Nativity sets, latex molds, and figure models in various stages of completion are currently on display at Glencairn Museum in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. They are part of the Museum’s current exhibit, “Follow the Star: The Tradition of the Creche.” This exhibit allows visitors to learn how Christians around the world have adapted the Nativity scene to represent their own cultures. The exhibit features more than 40 Nativities from 20 countries on five continents. Dates and times are as follows:
December 17, 18, 21-23 & 28-30 • 10:00am-3:00pm
December 19 • 11:00am-2:30pm
January 2 • 1:00pm-4:30pm
The editor’s of NewChurchHistory.org would like to thank Rachel Glenn for her assistance in providing access to Theta Alpha archival materials and all the molds, figures, boards, etc. that are pictured in four of the photographs above.
Photos: The photograph of the Theta Alpha Nativity scene currently in Glencairn Museum’s exhibit was taken by Diane van Zyverden. The four other photographs were taken by Ed Gyllenhaal. They show materials left over from the Theta Alpha project, which ended in the early 1990s: figures in various stages of painting; a latex camel mold and the special board used to hold the molds upside down; and a number of the master figures that were used to create the molds. Multiple layers of latex would be painted on these figures to produce a mold. The stain around the base of the figures indicates the extra latex lip that was part of each mold so that it could be supported upside down on the boards while the plaster was poured in.
Questions and comments may be addressed to the editors at [email protected].