A Christmas Treasure in Bethlehem

18th-century Neapolitan Crèche at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, CT

Situated in what appears to be a typical Connecticut rustic barn along Flanders Road in Bethlehem is a holiday and artistic treasure.

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Victor Amadeus II was crowned king of Sardinia in 1720.  As a coronation gift, he was presented with a Neapolitan crèche, consisting of 68 figures made of wood, terra cotta, porcelain, and jute.  They represent the Christ child, Mary and Joseph, shepherds, the three kings, and Italian villagers.  Their village is made from the bark of cork trees, and gives insight into the activities of those who lived along the Italian coast in the 18th century.

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Following the king’s death in 1732, the crèche was obtained by an Italian noble family, and it made its way to the United States in 1948.  The Abbey  of Regina Laudis was established the previous year, born out of the destruction of World War II.  Mother Benedict Dunn was born Vera Duss in the United States, but lived much of her early life in France.  She spent most of the war in the bell tower of the Abbey of Notre Dame de Jouarre, from which she watched the advance of George Patton’s liberating United States Third Army.  The kindness and sacrifice of the soldiers led Mother Benedict to establish a foundation in the United States.  The nuns were welcomed to Bethlehem by the artist Lauren Ford, who opened her home to the order until they could find a place of their own.  A local industrialist named Robert Leather donated the 400 acres that today comprise the Abbey.  The crèche was a gift of Loretta Hines Howard, who presented it to the Abbey in 1949, in memory of her husband.

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Several years later, Mrs. Howard donated a similar crèche to the Metropolitan Museum of arts, where it graces their Christmas decorations every December.  The Metropolitan’s curatorial staff was instrumental in the three-year restoration process the Regina Laudis crèche underwent from 2005 to 2008.  The crèche returned to Bethlehem for Christmas 2008 after the figures had been cleaned and repaired, the original 1720 costumes being hand stitched.

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The barn, which itself dates to the 18th century and once belonged to famed local minister Joseph Bellamy, was outfitted with climate control technology to ensure the preservation of the pieces.

To all of those who have taken the time to stop by this blog, a very happy holiday season!

Hidden Nearby: Goshen’s Liberty Pole

Note: Occasionally Hidden in Plain Sight will leave the environs of Litchfield in search of the historical landscape of the area.

On this Fourth of July, a marker on East Street North in nearby Goshen, Connecticut, allows us a window on to past celebrations of American freedoms and liberties.

John Adams famously believed that the signing of the Declaration of Independence “ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” He was not far from the mark; he erred only in believing that the celebrations would be held on July 2nd, the day the Continental Congress approved the document.

Raising a Liberty Pole in New York City, 1765

In Adams’ time, American patriots expressed their desire for freedom with liberty poles. Liberty poles were a common sight in the years before and during the American Revolution. These were tall, wooden poles, planted in the ground; they were different from regular flag poles in that they were usually topped by either a banner emblazoned with patriotic phrases or a liberty cap. (Liberty caps were conical-shaped hats, often made out of felt or other soft material; they were associated with the quest of Roman slaves for freedom.)

Liberty poles were often seen flying a red ensign; this was a signal for patriots to assemble to discuss the latest acts of British oppression. Naturally, British authorities objected to this means of communication between rebels, and the poles were destroyed. Just as quickly, however, they were rebuilt by Americans – especially the Sons of Liberty.

A French liberty pole

Liberty poles became symbolic of liberty, freedom and independence, and their use caught on in France during the French Revolution. They were also used as symbols of protest by farmers in western Pennsylvania during the period of the Whiskey Rebellion, from 1791 to 1794. As a symbol of liberty and freedom, the liberty pole was a popular image on 19th century American coins. In this 1857 “half dime,” the seated figure of Liberty holds a liberty pole topped with a liberty (or Phyrgian cap) in her left hand:

One wonders about Goshen’s liberty pole; it seems unlikely that there were many people in the area to gather around it in 1776. Why was it erected at this site, and not in the center of town? Was it, perhaps, simply a patriotic statement by an individual? Has there been a dramatic shift in the population center of Goshen? (There are other remnants of colonial Goshen further north on East Street.) Still, the town was proud of its patriotic activity in the Revolutionary Era and chose to commemorate it for the nation’s bicentennial. The town’s history records the events of July 4, 1876:

“In the early morning a company had assembled at the spot where a liberty pole had stood during the Revolution, and with appropriate ceremonies the stars and stripes were raised and flung to the breeze.”

One hundred years later, Goshen’s liberty pole was rededicated, as part of the official celebration of the nation’s bicentennial. A stone marker was dedicated, bearing the official seal of the Bicentennial, a flag pole erected behind it, and a time capsule buried.

We will celebrate the 236th anniversary of the nation’s independence in the style predicted by Adams – with pomp, parades, sports, and illuminations. Still, it is worth a trip to Goshen to be reminded of how freedom and liberty were celebrated in a simpler time.