Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Sort of a sequel to yesterday's post: after her workday, as part of her language program, Sunshine joined a field trip to Ho Chi Minh City's District Eight where many local catholics live. Today's lesson was to look at Christmas decorations. Caves, she reports, are everywhere. Really big ones, tinfoil- or Jackson Pollock-splattered painter's tarp- or paper-constructed caves. Many displays, Sunshine confirms, include scenes of the nativity erected inside the caves. When asked, language teachers began the familiar story: "when Jesus was born, they were so poor they had to live in a. . ." cave? Is this normal? Just something that I've never managed to learn about the world history of holy diorama? Or is this practice peculiar to Asia; the byproduct of missionary Christianity, mutated to fit into fresh culture? Wikipedia rather blithely (and parenthetically) mentions nativity scenes may be constructed in caves, among other structures,* but I cannot find further reference or illustration of this practice (or the traditional use of Reynolds Wrap in the tableau-making process). Any takers? My current theory bloomed after discovering the term "Christmas grottoes", which research indicates may refer to any kind of holiday display, secular or otherwise. Does this terminology indicate a concept originally having something to do with caves? Or did Asian culture just take the word "grotto" more literally than was ever intended? I'm going with the latter. I'm an optimist, preferring to think of my theory as more half baked than underdone. By the way, I discovered the Six diamonds after a nice Indian dinner last night. This makes not only a pair, but a suited pair--a pair flush--an exciting hand unavailable in regular poker. This new possibility will probably mean I have to strategically reevaluate the standard hierarchy of stud hands. Stay tuned. [Cavin]

Then, a 12 sided conversation ensued...

To which Anonymous henry p added:

In Nelson County, one county over from where I grew up, Baby Jesus hangs out in cave-esque displays made out of bathtubs turned on their sides. I think this is because Nelson County Catholics (that's where the monastery is. Ask Sunshine about the monastery) put their Virgin Mary statues also inside these bathtub grotto things.

I thought I'd have a lead for you in various books, since for a while it looked like I was going to Go Into Academics and study the art of Christian pilgrimage. But when I went to look up "crèche" in the index of my favorite of these books, I found instead a listing for "copulation with statues." And that sort of thing just deserves to be passed along.

PS, St Francis of Assisi invented the crèche — not out of whole cloth; there were already Nativity displays well before the early 13th century — at least the part with the manger, to illustrate the humility and poverty of the Nativity. Before St Francis, Baby Jesus was couched in jeweled displays. I've always assumed these were daïs-ish, but I've never seen any images or read any descriptive accounts. I conjecture wildly that some of these displays featured a more enclosed/enclosing space for the Child.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007 11:54:00 PM  
To which Blogger Mr. Cavin added:

Sort of like a Fabergé egg carton thing?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007 12:20:00 AM  
To which Blogger Ellie added:

Okay, I found a site about the four sacred caves of Christianity. Here is a link http://www.sacredsites.com/middle_east/israel/4_sacred_caves.html.

Also, I found this: "The older visual symbol of Christmas is the cave. Here are some words written by Justin Martyr in 155 AD. Justin was born in Nablus one of the major towns of the modern West Bank and less than fifty miles from Bethlehem and was a major writer in the early Christian period. He wrote: 'Should anyone desire proof for the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem let him consider that - in harmony with the story of his birth - a cave is shown in Bethlehem where he was born and a manger in the cave where he lay wrapped in swaddling clothes'."

If you type Nativity Caves into google, you will find a site that sells "Hand-carved Nativity Caves".

Don't know if that helps.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007 4:26:00 AM  
To which Blogger Alice C. Linsley added:

Caves are typical sacred sites in Asia. It a natural that the Nativity should be displayed in a cave. Many of the great religious leaders of Hinduism and Buddhism were said to have been born in caves.

A Korean myth tells of a bear and a tiger who shared a cave near the sacred sandalwood tree. They wanted to become human. Everyday they prayed earnestly before the tree and the Heavenly Prince, Hwan-Woong, decided to give them a chance to become human.

After a short time the tiger ran away because it could not stand the long days of sitting in the cave and eating only garlic and mugwort, but the bear endured the boredom, the darkness and the hunger, and after only twenty-one days was transformed into a beautiful woman. The woman was visited the sandalwood tree everyday to pray that she might have a child. She became Queen and gave birth to Dan-Gun the Sandalwood King. Dan-Gun later reigned as the first King of Korea.

Here is a site to visit for more information: http://www.travelmasti.com/budhist_sites/ajantacaves.htm

Wednesday, December 19, 2007 5:46:00 AM  
To which Blogger Mr. Cavin added:

Is this normal? Just something that I've never managed to learn about the world history of holy diorama? Or is this practice peculiar to Asia; the byproduct of missionary Christianity, mutated to fit into fresh culture?

After I said that in the post, the daughter / mother combination of Ellie and Alice decided to each tackle one half, respectively.

To Ellie I say, wow, good work, and why didn’t I think of Googling, um, the keywords I typed in the post? I spent a good four hours researching this on two different days, so good for you to turn something up in the, what?, fifteen minutes you had between giving the kid some breakfast and going to work in the morning. Anyway, you nailed it. Excellent. But that leaves the question of why? I mean, the French do not, that I am aware of, have a crèche tradition employing caves. If the Vietnamese didn’t get their nativity from the French, then where? Plus, they also use the cave to sell shoes and things, using shiny stuff to make the (possibly ice?) walls. It’s obvious that even the Anglican scholar of the article you cite is responding to an Asian phenomenon. It is unlikely that ice caves formed any kind of stable anywhere, ever. Certainly not the West Bank.

Alice C. Lindsay, I think there is a whole lot of important information down the road you took as well, but I am afraid that you skipped a few steps I’m interested in. Making the connection between (pre-Vedic, I guess?) Hindu leanings in the roots of southeast Asian culture (Khmer, Chăm) through its shared lineage with the Korean example you’ve provided isn’t much of a leap, I guess, but the expectation that modern Vietnamese Catholics, who undoubtedly owe their Christianity to the colonial French, would bestow this rather academically removed synthesis onto the Christmas story (decorations first) smacks of wild assertion when I type it and beggars your example. In Vietnam, Christianity isn’t an old tradition, forced on a society adamant to preserve their belief system regardless of the new theistic lexicon, they are folks who have made the choice to become Christian in a society already predominantly Buddhist when the missionaries arrived. This seems to me to be the sort of situation that underscores the boundaries of religious delineation, rather than permeating them. But I am ready to admit that I’m wrong.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007 10:08:00 PM  
To which Anonymous henry p added:

Catholic missionaries have generally — not exclusively, unfortunately — used existing local traditions, beliefs, and ideas to explain/explore Christianity. It makes perfect sense to me that missionaries and colonialists would have either turned their crèches into caves or encouraged Vietnamese converts to do so.

Also I'm pretty sure there are Provençal crèches that are cave-y, but I can't find any actual citations about this so just pretend I didn't say it at all.

Thursday, December 20, 2007 12:17:00 AM  
To which Blogger Mr. Cavin added:

Like you, Henry, I can believe that quite easily. The only thing is that, within my general ignorance when it comes to matters of faith, I tend to be a skeptic simply because it is safer. I have a horror of being offensive in ways I just don’t understand. I am interested in legend and religious synthesis, and it strikes me that this is unusual (mostly because it’s alien to me).

Here’s my thought today: with the synthesis of Catholicism and African and Native religions in the New World, for example, there is evidence that many of the mutations in both systems happened due as much to the preservation of the "forbidden" practices as to the degrading of new disciplines to habit or the grapevine effect of diluting messages. Why would it be necessary here, to prompt a synthesis? These things tend to take centuries to mutate wildly. And why a synthesis with Hinduism when the country was certainly predominantly Buddhist by the time Catholicism advanced?

Actually, I take that back. It would be interesting to see which pockets of people most naturally embraced the missionaries. I suppose there were quite a few central highlanders, communities mostly divorced from the main of Vietnamese culture, who were in contact, too. Perhaps they were still polytheists with cave creation stories. Or maybe, local flavor has it Buddha was also born in a cave? Or at least became the Buddha in one? I’m still asking all around. Or planning to.

Of course, if you see French Cave Nativities, please let me know. That would end this much more quickly.

Friday, December 21, 2007 2:04:00 AM  
To which Blogger Alice C. Linsley added:

In Eastern Orthodoxy most icons of the Nativity show Mary and the Baby in a cave. The Byzantine Orthodox Liturgy also speaks of the Nativity taking place in a cave. Orthodox monks were in Southeast Asia before Catholic missionaries.

Friday, December 21, 2007 3:37:00 AM  
To which Blogger Mr. Cavin added:

That's excellent! That answers everything. Yet I was under the impression that the Vietnamese first encountered Western religion through the interference of Western European traders out to snatch up as many spice route islands as possible (the Dutch and Portuguese and British did a lot of mission work on the way to stealing the land of other countries). I cannot find a source for any serious Christian propagation before Vietnam's European colonization by the French, and certainly nothing as early as to predate the fall of Byzantium. Ha ha. But I know what you meant.

Obviously, there could have been all sorts of land-route Christian Eastern Orthodoxy contact with Asia, and Asian Christian contact with Vietnam and A=C, but I can't find it anywhere because I don’t know where to look. And it’s after four am here, by the way, which the only excuse I can come up with that is escaped my attention that I spelled your name incorrectly last time, Alice C. Linsley. Please forgive me and thank you so much for taking part in my education on this topic.

Friday, December 21, 2007 4:45:00 AM  
To which Blogger Alice C. Linsley added:

Orthodox Christianity came to Southeast Asia from China. Orthodox priest-monks moved from Siberia into China in 1684. I'm sure if you do a search of the Chinese Orthodox Church you will find a website with that history.

Friday, December 21, 2007 6:59:00 AM  
To which Anonymous henry p added:

Fortunately for you I also studied Buddhist pilgrimage art! And I can tell you that Buddhist iconography borrows heavily and in some cases indiscriminately from Hindu iconography. This is akin to Christians during the Italian Renaissance pillaging centuries' worth of Classical art. (It's not just the art; there are a lot of philosophical similarities as well. But we're only trying to talk about CAVES here.)

Side note: I am afraid of caves.

Friday, December 21, 2007 10:29:00 AM  
To which Blogger Mr. Cavin added:

Henry: Bats. Darkness, enclosed spaces, loneliness. I’m not sure I can think of a more comprehensive confluence of phobias than caves. I understand your feelings completely. I can’t imagine going farther in than the outside light can reach. I saw a lot of Buddhist art at the Freer or the Sackler in DC, and I seem to remember Buddha meditating as an animist pantheon gathers around him to marvel at his enlightenment. I am not at all surprised at what you are saying. Thank you very much, by the way, for your input here.

Alice C. Linsley: I’ve enjoyed the conversation, thank you for taking part. I will do as you advise and go off and learn about it myself now. Certainly I’ll find someone out there to answer all the questions I have!

Saturday, December 22, 2007 2:08:00 AM  

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