Bruce Smith  /  AP
In this Friday, Nov. 12, 2010 photo, a nativity set crafted from clay is seen on display on the grounds of Mepkin Abbey near Moncks Corner, S.C. The annual Mepkin Abbey Creche Festival opens in the library on Nov. 15, 2010. On display are 73 nativity sets made of everything from clay and ceramic, to porcelain, wood, straw and sticks and lichen. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith)
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updated 11/12/2010 2:55:17 PM ET 2010-11-12T19:55:17

The holiday season arrives early each year at a Trappist monastery on a quiet bluff upriver from Charleston, S.C.

In what has become a Christmas tradition, the monks of Mepkin Abbey, even before Thanksgiving, display dozens of creches from around the world.

This year, an estimated 5,000 people are expected to visit the abbey about 45 minutes northwest of Charleston for the annual Mepkin Abbey Creche Festival.

This year the festival, which is free but for which reservations are required, opens Nov. 15. On display are 73 nativity sets made of everything from clay and ceramic, to porcelain, wood, straw and sticks and lichen.

Most have never been displayed before. The creches come from everywhere from Mexico and Guatemala to Kenya and Upper Volta to Korea.

Much of this year's collection is that of Jean and Alexander Heard. Alexander Heard, who died last year, became a creche collector after once making a nativity set from plywood. He served as chancellor of Vanderbilt University from 1963 until 1982.

Mepkin was founded in 1949 although nearby Moncks Corner has nothing to do with monks and was named for Thomas Monck, a local landowner.

Set under whispering oaks overlooking the Cooper River, the abbey includes a chapel, the Clare Boothe Luce Library where the festival is held, a store and gardens.

The Rev. Guerric Heckel said the monks didn't set out to have annual festivals. It started when he was manager of the abbey store in 2003.

"I thought that if there is a place where someone ought to be able to purchase a decent nativity set, it's in a monastery store," he said. "I got a little carried away and went out and ordered $5,000 worth of nativity sets."

It was then the abbey decided to display creches. That first year the monks displayed 10 of their own with 20 on loan from a Boston antiques dealer.

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"About 1,500 people came to see it," Heckel said. "We knew we were doing something that people really responded to."

Now the monastery has about 500 creches in its collection and people are increasingly donating them to the monks.

"There is something about the creche that just touches people in a deep place where they live," Heckel said. "Sometimes people will get teary-eyed in the store talking about the one their father used to put under the Christmas tree or the one they used to play with as a kid."

He said increasingly, people are making the festival part of their holiday tradition.

"The weekend after Thanksgiving they bring their family out to see the creches," he said. "It's quite a contrast between the malls and this and it offers them a few moments of quiet reflection as they begin the rush of the season."

This season there are some new additions to the festival. Several of the creches on display were commissioned by the monks.

And this year, for the first time, there are five outdoor nativity displays besides the dozens in the library. One of those outside is made from an old water tank and the sheep have eyes from old light bulbs.

But whether crafted of glistening ceramics or made of dull metal, the creches seem to evoke the same reactions.

"It touches mystery," Heckel said. "There are also the deep memories of childhood that are within us — those first Christmases that we go back to and kind of relive again."

___

If You Go...

MEPKIN ABBEY CRECHE FESTIVAL: Mepkin Abbey, 1098 Mepkin Abbey Rd., 5 miles off SC Route 402 southeast of Moncks Corner, S.C., http://mepkinabbey.org or 843-761-8509. Located about 45 minutes north of Charleston, S.C. . The creche festival is free and open to the public, but reservations are required. Groups of 10 or less may make reservations for Nov. 15-21 and Nov. 26-28, and for larger groups, Nov. 29-30 and Dec. 1-4. For more information and to register to attend the festival, visit http://mepkinabbey.org/creche2010/

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