Mepkin Abbey once again opens to visitors this weekend and next for its annual Creche Festival, an exhibition that features dozens of artistic interpretations of the holy Christmas scene.
For many, touring through the Nativities on the weekends that bookend Thanksgiving week is a wonderful way to prepare for the coming advent season and return the holiday to its spiritual roots.
"I think people are hungry for that," said the Rev. Guerric Heckel, the Mepkin brother who came up with the idea for the festival seven years ago.
The exhibition, which will extend through Dec. 5 for groups tours, is free - but registration is required at www.mepkinabbey.org.
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There are only a few hundred spots left for this weekend and next, Nov. 27-29. (This year, the exhibition at the Clare Booth Luce Library will feature 26 Joseph figures alone to illustrate the significance of Jesus's father, Brother Guerric said.
In addition to the Joseph figures, there will be 44 Nativity sets on display.
The core of the collection comes from a Rochester, N.Y., collector, the late Earl Kage, who made a permanent gift of the creches he had collected for 50 years.
The Nativities come in all sizes and are composed of all sorts of materials, from wood to clay and steel.
Visitors have an added incentive this year: Mepkin is once again offering holiday fruitcakes, made from a secret recipe, in its abbey gift store.
The fruitcakes, which cost $25, are made from a recipe developed by the late Rev. Boniface Schnitzbauer, the Trappist brother who was in charge of baking at the abbey for 40 years.
When people inquire about the recipe, Brother Guerric usually tells them, "It is a secret between the monks and God and the monks aren't telling."
For years, the Trappist brothers set aside November to bake the fruitcakes, which are rich in pecans, candied fruits and spices, for friends and family under the watchful eye of Brother Boniface,.
Brother Boniface was said "to bake as if the task were a sacrament," former State food writer Allison Askins wrote in remembering Boniface, who died in 2005.
And so the brothers are continuing that tradition in offering them to the public at the abbey's gift store. Brother Geurric, the abbey store manager and native plant project director at the Berkeley County abbey, said baking took place in October this year.
The store is also filled with Nativity scenes that will be reminiscent of those on display at the Roman Catholic monastery.
As part of the preparation for Christmas at the abbey, Brother Guerric said he and other monks are also weaving a 10-foot natural wreath to affix to the Mepkin tower, an example of using simple, natural materials in holiday decorating.