Among the many Christmas events underway in Prague at this time of year is an exhibition of nativity scenes and bells at Bethlehem Chapel in the city centre. Hidden deep in the bowels of the chapel, the exhibition is light years away from the bright lights and bustling city life above. Everything on display is hand made –from wood carved nativity scenes to Christmas decorations made of lace – and it transports visitors to the Christmases of days-gone-by. My guide around the exhibition Hanka Drahošová says this is the place to come for the real Christmas spirit.
“This Christmas exhibition has the longest history of all those taking place in Prague. This year we are in our 35th year and in the communist era it was the only public place where you could hear Christmas carols. Nowadays it is organized by Mr. Lukavec and Mr. Kubec and they try to keep the traditional Czech crafts alive. So what you see here is made by contemporary people, artists, craftsmen and people for whom it is just a hobby and also by children, even children from kindergartens. That is what is really nice about this exhibition that it goes across generations and one need not be a top artist to take part –you just have to have the enthusiasm for it and love this kind of thing.”
What we see here are all Christmas decorations that we could have seen in homes a hundred or two hundred years ago. Traditionally the main focus is on nativity scenes, but I understand that this year the emphasis is on bells, is that right?
“Yes, every year we have a special topic. We try to maintain the character of the exhibition –the traditional Czech Christmas – so all the decorations you see are made from natural materials, wood, cloth, ceramics, paper, lace and so on. Bobbin lace meetings take place here on one weekend during the exhibition and carvers from around the Czech Republic and even Slovakia come here and show people how these beautiful things are created. As I already mentioned there is a different topic every year. So, for instance, we had Christmas with the smell of wood, Christmas in the Kitchen, last year we had a fairy tale Christmas, so there were a number of puppet theatres taking part, and this year the main topic is bells.”
“As I said, we have quite a large number of different bells. They were created by three well-known Czech bell-makers. One is Mr. Manousek who made this instrument.”
That’s actually a carillon, isn’t it?
“Yes, it was specially made for our exhibition. It is something that people can play even if they are not musicians. You play these bells like you would play a piano.”
That’s beautiful. I can see that it is an interactive exhibition, people are invited to play instruments and touch things. I can see children having a lot of fun here…. Here we have a collection of bells. I understand you have bells from different corners of the earth that serve different purposes?
“Yes, we have not only Czech bells, but also bells from Tibet and from Buddhist temples and visitors can even try this water bell which works on resonation – resonation makes the water play (shows how it works) …you can see little bubbles forming. “
“Here we have several bells from the Ditrich family who have a long tradition in bell-making dating back to the 1950s. The granddaughter is now continuing in that tradition and loaned us these items. There is a bell dedicated to Pope John Paul II –that is a copy of a bell he received from the Czech Republic, this here is a bell made to commemorate the arrival of Cyril and Methodius to Moravia.”
“This place is open to anyone who wants to show handicrafts to other people. So anyone can join us, spend some time here and show people their craft. Today we have a woodcarver - Mr. Chrpa – who is carving small wooden figures for a nativity scene. We also have meetings of bobbin lace makers and several years ago we had a violin maker, he was here when we had a musical Christmas as our special topic and liked it so much that he came again on the two successive years. What is nice about this place is that these people come of their own accord. They have the time and they like it here. They show children and adults that not everything in made in factories and that handicrafts are not as easy as they look and sometimes it takes hours to carve a small wooden sheep or make a bobbin lace decoration. It is really nice to see kids taking this in and giving it a try and creating something with their own hands.”
And here we have a ceramic nativity scene ….
“Yes, this particular ceramic nativity scene was made by Mrs Medalova and I like the fact that not only on this nativity scene but on all the figures people have created here they have bestowed happy and smiling faces and sometimes you see a sense of humor in the works. And when you go round the exhibition you gradually calm down and start to feel a sense of Christmas. Nowadays people complain that Christmas has become a hectic time, but in reality the feeling is inside us. And if go round the exhibition and look at the exhibits, piece by piece, admire the details, then you will calm down and realize that Christmas is about something different.”
So all these nativity scenes here – of clay, wood, corn husks and wool - were made by amateurs?
“Yes, mostly these things have been made by people who like doing this kind of thing and keeping traditions. We have a few pieces by artists as well, but since this exhibition is quite big we always have stuff done for it specially. The main topic is announced a year in advance and people can create whatever they like and whatever is in the spirit of this exhibition. Even kids can create wonderful things and we are always amazed by how creative they are. I like to see them growing up with something creative, not just PC games. If you come here with your family you can find inspiration for such home creativity as well – for instance making gingerbread figures is easy, you can bake them at home and kids love to decorate them.”
And this looks like a waterwheel here –this is just to set the mood is it?
“Yes, that’s right. Kids and adults love the waterwheel. Once we had a big wheel, this is a small one but it creates the right atmosphere as well.”
So now we are actually moving on stepping stones across water here…..
“Yes, as far as this exhibition goes www stands for wood, water and wonderful people. The background here is made of wood, there is running water and wonderful people all around us.”
And what have we come to now –another bell –what is this?
“That is a bell that US President George Bush brought to Prague for President Vaclav Havel in the 1990s. It is called Bell of Freedom and was lent to us by Prague Castle.”
And this, again, looks like a workshop….
“Yes, this workshop was created by one of the bell-makers, Mr. Votruba, in order to show people how bells are made. And on December 6th a bell for the belfry of Bethlehem chapel will be cast on the square above us. Next year we are marking the 600th anniversary of Master Jan Hus and although the chapel was reconstructed in the 1950s the belfry is still empty. So that’s where the main idea for the exhibition came from. Mr. Lukavec and Mr. Kubec thought it would be a nice idea to make a bell for the belfry of Bethlehem chapel as the highlight of this exhibition.”
So it will actually be cast on Bethlehem square for the public to see?
“Yes, that’s right and it will be installed in the belfry in the New Year.”
And so we are slowly coming to the end of the exhibition –is there anything you would like to point out?
“Yes, standing here you can smell the fresh gingerbread and you can take in this exhibition with all your senses. If you buy some gingerbread in our little shop here you can even taste it, or we offer visitors mulled wine which they like to drink –you can touch some of the exhibits and hear the bells ring so this Christmas exhibition is for all the senses.”
“Yes, mostly they don’t have this atmosphere. Some even like to come and spend some time on Christmas day here because it is so different from the world outside –no one runs here –and it feels just like home.”
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