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The Christmas Tree and Neapolitan Baroque Creche

A decades-old holiday tradition still dazzles.

Annual Christmas Tree and Neapolitan Baroque Crèche display The Metropolitan Museum of Art

For more than 40 years, a 20-foot blue spruce in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Medieval Sculpture Hall has captivated visitors, who come to gape at the angels and cherubs draped on its candlelit boughs and the elaborate Nativity scene assembled at its base. Colorful, luxe costumes enhance the exquisitely modeled figures, all of which were handmade in 18th-century Naples. Little kids are in luck if they want a close-up look at the details: They’re at eye level with the multicultural procession grouped around the Christ Child.

There’s a family story behind this artful scene. The first of its 200 or so shepherds, kings, villagers and animals were donated to the museum in 1964 by Loretta Hines Howard, who'd begun collecting them in the 1920s. Howard came up with the idea of displaying the Nativity figures, a Roman Catholic custom perfected in Naples, in conjunction with a Christmas tree, a convention among Protestant groups in northern Europe, and she loaned her crèche to the Met for an initial seasonal display in 1957. She donated her collection with the understanding that she and her family would remain involved in its yuletide exhibition. Following Howard’s death in 1982, her daughter and granddaughter, Linn Howard and Andrea Selby, have carried on with the display, adding new settings and figures every year. The results of this clan’s astonishing effort have inspired countless families to establish a tradition of their own: an annual trip to gawk at the whole shebang.—Ashley Welch

The Christmas Tree and Neapolitan Baroque Crèche are on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Jan 6, 2010.
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