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The Celebrations and Stories Behind our Italian Creche

Figure 1: Creche on Display at the News-Gazette circa 1990

Nativity scenes or Creches are common in the Midwest, especially at Christmas gatherings and churches during the holiday season. Many feature the usual cast of Mary, Joseph, Jesus, shepherds, three wise men, and angels. The Champaign County History Museum’s creche features this main cast with additional figurines that create its unique scene. Our creche differs from others in the local community because of its international origins and traversal across the globe. Its story traces that of one of Champaign’s most influential media figures: Marajen Stevick Chinigo, and brings European traditions to the local community.

Figure 2: Marajen Stevick Chinigo

The Italian Celebrations

With its Italian roots, the creche represents stories and traditions that, while familiar to our holidays in the United States, are fundamentally different. Creches like the one in our care would be owned by wealthy families and the church, due to the extraordinary price of each figurine. Your average citizen might have a smaller, less ornate nativity scene featuring just Mary, Joseph, Jesus, angels, and animals known as a "Mistero". (1) The "diversorio" represents the common folk and features your common citizenry going about their daily lives and is included in most large creches such as the one in our care.

These more extravagant creches owned by the church and the upper echelon of society would be put into place on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The wealthy would open their doors to friends and occasionally the general public to view their unique creches each year where they would act as both a celebration and as a symbol of status. (2) 

The church's creches were cemented in more ceremony than celebration. Each figurine would be given to a member of the community, usually one of great influence to the church or one who positively impacted their community throughout the year. The figurines would then be presented during holiday mass and put in their respective places, where they would be displayed until the holiday of Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas, and a celebration of the arrival of the three wise men. (3) This ceremony was both a celebration and a sign of social status among the community, as only those deemed in good standing would be able to participate. At the end of Epiphany, the creches would be quietly taken down.

The Italian Connection and Setting the Stage

Figure 3: Michael Chinigo

In 1952, Marajen met Michael Chinigo, the Rome Bureau Chief of the International News Service (INS). The two would be married the following year. The newlywed couple would purchase a 12th-century monastery on the Amalfi Coast in Italy, called Torre di Civita (Tower of Civilization). This second home away from Champaign became an integral part of Marajen and Michael’s lifestyle. The home and gardens inspired Majaren’s art and were often used to entertain guests. Through these social gatherings at the villa, Marajan integrated herself into Italian culture, embracing some of their traditions. Despite this new international home, both continued to be an integral part of the News-Gazette. In 1954 Michael, joined the family business as the paper’s editor, seeking to push the business forward. (4) In 1967 with the passing of her mother, Helen, Marajen found herself as the sole owner of the New-Gazette, with Michael continuing to act as the paper's editor. Under her care, the News-Gazette flourished and continued to expand and in the early 1980s, they needed to move. In 1984 Marajen purchased 15 Main Street (formerly a JC Penny’s) in downtown Champaign as the new building for the News-Gazette. They would celebrate their grand opening the following year in 1985 where the creche would later call its home. 

The Creche, its Restoration and Initial Display

Some of the figurines are speculated to be 18th-century Neapolitan which were given to Marajen as gifts. While we have been unable to identify a creator or who gave them to her, how the figurines were made reflects the traditional Italian methods. The figurine's heads are made of terra cotta, their limbs made of wood, and held together through a metal wire frame and tightly bound hemp or twine. This allows the figurines to be more than just stationary dolls but flexible to some extent. Their clothing is made of silk and instruments are made of copper or tin. Some of the figurines were later additions such as the animals featured alongside their shepherds. It's apparent through analysis that the figurines originate from at least two separate artisans as the moldings of the limbs and heads differ from body to body.

Figure 4: Creche on display circa 1990

It’s unknown when the creche made its way to the States, though it was never on display at the old News-Gazette building at 48-50 Main Street. Before it could be displayed to the public it was apparent that the figurines needed restoration as their paint was cracking and clothing deteriorating according to Harry Breen in a 1988 News-Gazette article. Bloomington artist Jack Statz restored the figurines, including the townspeople and angels. Diane Breen restored or remade many of the costumes adorned on the figurines. (5). On some of them any original cloth that could have been saved was and then additional material was layered on top to add additional frills or accents. Her husband and noted local artist Harry Breen would create the base and column backdrop that the creche still stands on today. 

Figure 5: Figurines circa 1990

Utilizing the winding staircase that led to Marajen’s office as a focal point, the creche was available for public viewing for the first time on December 18th, 1988. The creche featured around forty figurines and a twenty-foot-tall tree adorned with angel figurines holding brass and string instruments. With the creche placed in the negative space created by the staircase, visitors would find themselves wrapping around the tall tree as they ascended the stairs toward Marajen’s office. The display was viewable during the News-Gazette’s open hours during the week and was taken down on Epiphany, January 6th, adhering (whether intentionally or not) to standard Italian tradition.

The creche was put on display again the following year at the beginning of December 1989. It was once again placed in the lobby of the News-Gazette, centered around the winding staircase for all who passed by the large windows in the lobby to see. (6) It seems there were no major changes or additions to the creche between 1988 and 1989. Despite being put up earlier in the month than the previous year, the creche was once again taken down on January 6th, following Italian tradition. It would continue to be on display at the News-Gazette each year until Marajan’s passing in 2002. Her fellow employees would continue the tradition through the early 2000s though it is unknown when the creche was last displayed to the public at the Stevick Building.

The Creche at the Champaign County History Museum

Figure 6: Creche 2023

When the News-Gazette faced financial troubles in the late 2010s the entirety of their records and artifacts fell into question. In 2018, to preserve their collection, the Champaign County History Museum acquired records and Stevick family artifacts, including the 18th-century Neapolitan creche. The museum would first seek to display it to the public in the winter of 2021, but a surge in COVID-19 cases forced the museum to close its doors. The creche was placed back into storage, where the delicate figurines were separated into archival-quality doll boxes to preserve them for the future. Looking to provide this experience again, the creche was put up for display in November of 2023.


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