CHARLESTON — Each year as Christmastide approaches, thousands find their way down winding back roads to a quiet Trappist monastery about 30 miles from Charleston to reflect upon the meaning of the season.
They are drawn to the Mepkin Abbey Crèche Festival that each year displays dozens of manger scenes – also called creches – from the abbey’s collection of more than 700 from all over the world.
It’s been 10 years now since that first festival attracted about 1,500 people. And the anniversary has been marked with the publication of a new 196-page book, “Finding Bethlehem – A Global Journey Through the Mepkin Abbey Crèche Festival.” It features color photographs of manger scenes from both the abbey collection and those on loan that have appeared as part of the festival.
The book also describes the history of the crèche festival and the larger story of how Christians around the world through the centuries have made the crèche part of their Christmas celebrations.
“That first year we saw the festival’s potential,” said the Rev. Guerric Heckel, who helped start the festival when he was manager of the abbey store. “It touches deep chords in people’s lives. They remember the nativity set they used to play with under the Christmas tree or the one their father put out.”
The festival, which now attracts about 7,000 people a year, is held only for three weeks during November.
It doesn’t extend into December so as not to interfere with the monks’ quiet reflections during Advent or Christmas preparations for the 70 volunteers who help stage the festival, Heckel said.
But now with the book, people can get a glimpse of the festival throughout the year.
“One of the primary reasons for the book was to celebrate our 10th anniversary,” he said. “This used to be something you kind of heard about, but now it’s moved to being one of the main events in the Lowcountry at this time of year.”
Patrons have helped underwrite the price so the abbey can offer the book for $20 through its store and website, www.mepkinabbey.org.
The dozens of color photographs are accompanied by the Christmas story from the Book of Luke, as well as quotes from monastic writers from Mother Teresa to Thomas Merton seeking to convey the mystery of Advent and the meaning of the nativity. In addition, a number of the artists who created the crèches also reflect on their work.
The crèches are made of natural material, and “we try to get away from some of the plastic in the season,” Heckel said.
“And we’re one of the few places were you don’t have to worry about a controversy over displaying nativity sets,” he added, referring to fights over whether nativity scenes on public property violate the constitutional separation of church and state.
While the abbey’s 17 monks have their hands full with the three-week festival each year, Heckel said there has been some discussion of finding a permanent place at Mepkin to display the manger scenes year-round.
But for now, he said, “we feel the festival is a contribution the monastery can make to the public for those people who are looking for a quieter, more reflective experience to begin the holidays.”
Follow Bruce Smith at http://twitter.com/brucesmithap