A very cool Christmas gift arrived this week from my twin sister Amy... funny how people are still finding out that I am a twin!
This nativity set was made by Mr. Chanpheng Sombath, in Nanga Village, Vientiane, Laos, about 47 Kilometers north of central Vientiane. He is a member of the LDS Church and my sister Amy is in his ward.
Mr. Chanpheng is the father of five children. His primary livelihood is rice farming and manual labor, and he comes from a family of locally-renowned woodcarvers and gunsmiths. The women in the family weave silk to supplement the family income. During long forays in the jungle hunting and scavenging for food and countless nights in the rice fields, Chanpheng grew up learning how to make small traps, weapons, and trinkets of all types.
Chanpheng began making Lao nativity sets when he learned a previous source of similar sets was drying up, yet demand remained high. Having converted to Christianity from Buddhism, producing nativity sets is more personal to the Sombath family than a source of supplemental income. Members of his community and congregation are proud of Chanpheng for using his skills and talent to subtly share his faith while helping to preserve Lao folk art amidst rapid modernization in Laos.
Each Lao Nativity set is produced from wood and natural materials Chanpheng has personally gathered in the jungle near his village. Woods used in production may vary, but the most common wood Chanpheng uses is called "May Mook" or "Pearl Wood" in English, due to its clean white appearance. The wood is dried next to the family's charcoal cooking fire, and members of the family help weave reeds and straw for the roof and walls of the miniature huts. Chanpheng personally carves each character using rudimentary hand tools, adding a unique touch of personality to each one. The model house is built using the same methods and design as a full-sized traditional Lao house, raised above the ground to provide shade and protect from flooding. At full production capacity it is only possible to produce three sets per week, and carving the characters takes about two days per set.
In approximately two years, the Sombath family has produced dozens of these nativities and has used the majority of the resultant income to support extended family and help other families in their village. Their children have new clothes and a new bicycle to ride to school, and in the future the family hopes to save enough money to buy roof tiles to replace the sheet metal roof on their house.
Care for the nativity: As the nativity is made from all natural sources, it carries a risk of inhabiting bugs and termites. Each set has been sprayed with bug killer but as a precaution the nativity and characters should be set in direct sunlight for 12-24 hours to kill any potential bugs or eggs. As an alternative, it could be placed outside in freezing cold weather or inside a freezer for 12-24 hours. This should be done upon receipt of the set and prior to storing for long periods of time. ( I have to wait for us to get either of these weather extremes out here since its just grey and rainy right now!)