It is Christmas time again, and the Magi along Sheridan Road slowly make their way to the manger outside the Mundelein Center for the Fine and Performing Arts. This nativity scene is seen by, or at least passed by, hundreds of commuters to and from Chicago every day. I would like to draw your attention away from Chicago, and even the Land of Lincoln, to another popular, though perhaps more out-of-the-way, nativity scene.
Algona, Iowa, about 50 miles west of Mason City, is home to a unique nativity scene whose origins are sad, but enlightening. I first heard about the Algona Nativity Scene when I worked at the Camp Algona POW Museum over the summer of 2011. Camp Algona was one of some 500 base and branch camps that housed approximately 400,000 Prisoners of War in the US between 1942 and 1946. Unlike most World War II POW camps, Camp Algona is not forgotten, despite having no physical structures remaining. The memory of the prisoners and the camp is carried on by the museum, but those memories were maintained long before the museum opened its doors in 2004. The men held captive just outside town are remembered because of a gift left to Algona in 1946 by six POWs.
In December 1945, 6 POWs from Camp Algona presented to the public a nativity scene of over 60 half-life sized figures, ranging in height from 12 inches to 56 inches. It had taken almost 6 months, and $8,000 to create the piece. To the POWs who made it and the POWs interned at Camp Algona, it was a way to remember and connect to the family they could not be with back home. To the people of Algona, it represented a common faith and humanity shared with the German captives living outside their town.
Since 1945, the Algona nativity scene has attracted people from far and near. It has become an enduring symbol of unity for the people of Algona and reminds those who visit of the impact of war and the presence of the POWs held at Camp Algona decades ago.
After the camp closed, the scene was taken in by the Algona Jaycees and is now cared for by the Men’s Club of the First United Methodist Church in Algona, Iowa. –Algona Nativity Scene Omeka Site
The scene is open to the public annually during the Christmas season and thousands make the trip to see it.
Can’t drive out to the only double county in Iowa to see this amazing piece of history? You are in luck! For my Material Culture class this fall at Loyola University Chicago I created an Omeka web exhibit about the scene. I tried to contextualize the scene and analyze what the figures in the scene could tell us about the men who made them. This was my first foray into material culture analysis. I wanted to make a site that would be engaging and informative to the public.
The nativity scene differs from traditional representations of the nativity in several important details that hint at origins and significance: Mary is blond and, like Jesus and many other figures in the scene, has blue eyes. There is a small family group consisting of a mother and two children placed just outside the stable itself, and a woman carrying a jug is also included among the figures. As the primary architect of the scene noted, Christmas was a particularly poignant season for men separated from home and family and confined to the company of other men.
The major challenge in interpreting this work is one faced by every public historian: I was taking a fond part of a group’s history and recasting it. The story of the scene is extremely precious to those who care for it and visit every year. The warm feelings the scene provokes hide the sad reality of the situation that led to German POWs creating a nativity scene in rural Iowa. I wanted to remind the viewer that while being captive in the US was a much better fate than being held by the Soviets, these men had been ripped away from home and family because of war. The POWs were accepted by the people of Algona because they shared a common religion and complexion. Had those held in Camp Algona been Japanese instead of German, the story might have turned out much differently. The salty tears caused by war led to a sweet Christian symbol of peace giving Algona a memory they wanted to hold on to. I am not sure I was able to drive home all of these points, but I hope my web exhibit will provoke some thought, and that is all I can really ask for.
Want to learn more? You can visit the site I created by clicking here.