If you will be in the Philadelphia area this holiday season, you owe it to yourself to plan a visit to Glencairn in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. Built between 1928 and 1939, Glencairn is an impressive Medieval-style castle that first served as a private home for the Raymond Pitcairn family and now serves as a museum.
Between the day after Thanksgiving and the Sunday after Epiphany, the museum hosts “Christmas in the Castle,” a guided tour of the facility that includes time to visit the museum’s collection of nativity scenes from around the world.
“The mission of the museum is to present the history of religion around the world in a way that helps us find common ground,” says Joralyn Glenn, who grew up visiting the museum on summer visits to her extended family and who now serves as the museum’s public relations director.
She says the nativity exhibit helps the museum accomplish this mission. “We try to put each nativity in a scene or setting that is evocative of where it comes from,” Joralyn explains, adding that information on when, where and of what material each one is made as well as information on the artist is included. “We try to display nativities that were not mass-produced but are more unique,” she says.
One of Joralyn’s favorites is the three-scene diorama nativity that Raymond Pitcairn commissioned from local artist Winfred S. Hyatt for his castle home. Hyatt, who created stained glass for the nearby Bryn Athyn Cathedral and then for Glencairn, depicts the angels appearing to the shepherds, the Three Wise Men and the star and the nativity itself. An unusual aspect of this nativity scene is that Mary is seen lying down rather than sitting up beside the cradle as she usually is depicted.
Another highlight of the Glencairn nativity display is its Presepio, which was created by the Ferrigno company, a fourth-generation family business located in Naples, Italy. The large nativity figures are mostly made of terracotta, but their limbs are made of wire enclosed in cloth, making them posable. The figures have glass eyes and wear intricate handmade clothing of silk and velvet in the 18th-century style.
While some nativities are displayed each year at Glencairn, the museum exchanges some of its collection with other institutions to provide variety for museum visitors. This year, the museum is exchanging nativities with the collection of the Knights of Columbus from New Haven, Connecticut.
Christmas in the Castle is a popular event, and tour groups are limited to 12 people so that visitors can better navigate some of the small spaces of the castle. Joralyn recommends that guests make reservations, especially if they are coming from a distance. The museum will accommodate walk-ins if space is available.
During the 45-minute tour, visitors can enjoy the many works of art in the Glencairn collection, which includes some pieces dating from the Middle Ages. The tour includes visits to the Great Hall, the Upper Hall, the Tower, the Chapel, the Master Bedroom and the Medieval Treasury.
The tour is appropriate for all ages, and children receive a “Seek and Find Quest” asking them to answer about a dozen questions about the exhibit. “If you answer all the questions correctly, you get a little prize,” notes Joralyn.
After the formal part of the tour, visitors can explore on their own the World Nativities exhibit as well as a nearby seasonal exhibit this year on “Imagery in Nativity Scenes.”
This special exhibit examines details in nativities such as Joseph’s lantern and why most nativity scenes include three Wise Men when the Bible does not mention a number. “We break them (nativities) down element by element,” says Joralyn.
“Glencairn is really a special place, and we hope people will find inspiration for the Christmas season here and want to return,” Joralyn continues.
“There is a lot of negativity and confusion about religion today, and we look for commonality. We want be a place that shows objects of worship in a neutral setting that is non-threatening to people of different faiths – and to non-believers. . . We encourage people to see that what we do is not that different from what they do.”
Christmas in the Castle runs from Friday, Nov. 24 through Sunday, Jan. 7. Tour hours are weekdays at 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. and weekends at 1, 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. The tour is not available Dec.11-12 (due to preparation for a concert) and Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors (65+) and students with I.D. Other prices apply to museum members and to group tours with an appointment. Visit https://glencairnmuseum.org/christmas-in-the-castle or call 267-502-2600 for reservations or for more information.