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Nativity scenes take center stage

Nativity scenes take center stage

The annual event features more than 300 Nativity scenes
Nativity scenes take center stage
Nativity scene fro Ecuador, one of the many assorted nativity scenes from around the world at Immanuel Lutheran Church.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

You may recognize the scene: a woman and a man gazing at a baby who appears snuggled in a straw-filled feed box.

Other characters might include three regal-looking men in funny hats holding boxes; a man in a robe kneeling and holding a shepherd's hook; a young boy holding a lamb; and an assortment of barnyard animals.

Indeed the crèche, or Nativity scene, is as ubiquitous this time of year as trees, garland and Santa Claus. A search for "Nativityscene" on Amazon.com yields more than 17,000 results.

There are wooden versions, glass or paper creches, and even a set featuring bathtub ducks.

According to the Catholic church, the very first Nativity scene dates back to Dec. 24, 1233, when Catholic friar Francis of Assisi, staged a live version of the Christian Christmas story in a cave just outside of Greccio, Italy.

It is said that St. Francis had become so disgusted by the materialism he saw around him that he wanted to remind the community of the humiliation and poverty into which Jesus was born and refocus the people's attention to the original reason for the Christmas festival.

He filled the cave with hay, brought in a donkey and ox -- not for historical accuracy, but rather to emphasize the natural, simple surroundings of Jesus' birth -- and celebrated Mass by starlight and candlelight.

The story goes that those in attendance were moved by the scene, and within 100 years almost every Italian church had a Nativityscene.

While most Christian churches today feature a crèche or two as part of the annual Christmas décor, Immanuel Lutheran Church in Niskayuna has not one, but hundreds of unique Nativity scenes on public display for most of December.

The tradition started in 2005 when then-pastor Derek Lecakes brought his own Nativities to add to the church's decorations. The next year, parishioners did likewise and invited the public to view the display.

Now in its 10th year, the annual event features more than 300 Nativity scenes set up throughout the church.

"We stopped counting last year," said lead volunteer Linda Lewis. "If anyone wants to come in and count them all and let us know, that's fine."

The crèches themselves come in all shapes and sizes, and are made from a variety of materials. Most are donated by congregation members and their families, sometimes in honor of a loved one who passed away during the year. Lewis' relatives who have traveled abroad often bring back Nativity sets from countries from Mexico to Scotland and beyond. While she cannot name her favorite, Lewis is especially fond of a set from Czechoslovakia made from corn husks, as well as a scene made from newspaper.

"It reminds me of when I worked at the newspaper. It's like telling the good news of Jesus," she said.

Not all of the sets are a typical diorama.

Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus are depicted carved in wood and as a completed puzzle, as well as created out of Peruvian gourds. The crèches range in size from only an inch tall to the outdoor display that measures around 15 feet tall.

The sanctuary also features Nativity scenes. The Christmas tree by the altar is decorated with Christmas cards, all of which depict the manger scene. Children can also participate, as there is a selection of crèches that are meant to be handled and played with.

With so much to see, visitors often walk from room to room multiple times, finding something they missed the first time.

It takes Lewis and a handful of volunteers nearly 10 hours to set up the tables and unpack each individual display, but it's a task she's happy to take on. Like St. Francis, Lewis hopes it calls attention to a different focus of the Christmas season.

"We do it to get out the meaning of Christmas," she said. "It's not just about running around and shopping. It can be a place to sit and meditate, a peaceful place."

The Nativity scenes will be on display throughout December. There is no admission to the Nativity scene display.

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