In the fall of 2020, just before the typical holiday rush, glass artist Lauren Wzorek Earl noticed an unusual uptick in the sales of one of her most popular products. A meme had taken off on Twitter commenting on, of all things, minimalist nativity sets. There was her stained glass version, among other oblong wise men and faceless, rhomboid Baby Jesuses.
To be fair, it is kind of funny. After millennia of endless, extravagant depictions of the first family of Christianity, these sleek blocks and blobs are certainly a diversion. While they may elicit a giggle (imagine finding a delinquent wooden block simply labeled "Jesus" between couch cushions), these increasingly popular decorations have plenty of fans -- and can spark fascinating conversations about a cherished Christmas tradition .
Nativities then, nativities now
View of a wooden Nativity Scene on display at the Christmas Market on the Main Market Square in Krakow, Poland. Credit: Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Getty Images
But what about something ... simpler?
Earl, the glassmaker, has been working with stained glass and mirrors her entire career. After taking a break to build her family, she was in need of some new inspiration. It came in 2017 when her sister-in-law sent her a stained glass nativity scene from Europe.
"It included traditional techniques, with soldering and and foils. And I thought, 'I should adapt this to my style,'" she told CNN.
She filled up pages and pages with sketches, tweaking shapes here, considering color and texture there.
"I didn't want the piece to be made up of actual human figures," she said. "So as it evolved, it became a series of shapes that were a resemblance of the scene. I love that you can know what it's depicting without those specifics. You can let your mind recognize it instead."
"I think it's funny. I know it's not for everyone, but it's a new option for people," she says. "I've had customers who collect nativity sets, or who say they have been waiting for one that really spoke to them. That's what's important to me."
New art meets old traditions
Etsy shop owner oliverfabel sells a minimal nativity set, Bauhaus-style for $25.86. Credit: From oliverfabel/Etsy
Brooklyn Swenson, an artist in Utah, says she drew on this inspiration for her brightly colored minimalist nativity set.
Meaning, aesthetic -- or both?
It's no wonder those who make and buy these minimalist sets say they're such a conversation piece.
They're also a growing trend on craft sites and at craft fairs, and artists like Earl and Fabel say they've had to battle off copycat designs, and even take legal action to protect their work in the few years since they've become popular. The trend has also inspired sets that toe the line between minimalism and outright absurdity.
Earl says, while people purchase her art for many reasons, she's noticed a large portion of her sales are to younger customers. She posits that some are keen to start their own version of Christmas traditions, even if it doesn't look a lot like typical nativity fare.
"I think people like the idea of connecting with art, instead of just a set of figurines, which some nativity sets are," she says.
Her favorite part of her stained glass nativity is the figure of Jesus, a shy down-turned half circle of mirrored glass.
"I didn't want to assign a color to that," she said. "After all, we don't know what these people looked like. We each have our own idea. And I love the fact that, when people look at the Jesus in this scene, they see themselves reflected back."
Top image: Lauren Wzorek Earl's Etsy business, Szklo Glass, sells a modern stained glass nativity set for $170.