Holiday celebrations surrounding this time of the year have begun, with a number of religious traditions centered around the celebrated birthday of Jesus Christ of Nazareth on Dec. 25. For the Christian community of Florence, one of the local seasonal highlights is a collection of Nativity scenes that depict different interpretations of the birth of Jesus.
There is a centuries-old tradition among Christian denominations to include Nativity scenes to symbolize the historical setting that was present at the time of the birth of Jesus.
The Florence Nativity Festival at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is an extensive collection that includes interpretations of the birth of Jesus created by followers from many different cultures. This year’s display will have hundreds of Nativity sets comprised of numerous individual pieces and no two are alike. Many of the sets are family heirlooms.
The church, located at the corner of North Fork and Munsel Lake roads, began sharing Nativity sets with the public more than a decade ago. Carol Parrish has been involved since the inception of the event.
“I was in the very first one 14 years ago,” she said. “I got a lot of mine at yard sales, Goodwill and estate sales. I pick them up here and there and I just keep at it.”
In addition to what would be considered “traditional” scenes, which are centered on figurines in or around a barn or a manger, there are other, more modern treatments of the event that Christians look towards as the beginning of their religion.
Parrish has recently commissioned and purchased one piece that fits into this category from a talented local artist.
“Several years ago, I ran into a gentleman named Ralph Martin, who is a woodworker. He lives in Greentrees and I asked him if he could make me a nativity out of myrtle wood,” Parrish said. “He asked me what kind and I said I didn’t care — you pick.”
Time passed and Parrish thought that perhaps Martin had forgotten her piece. Then, about a year later, she received a call.
“It was Ralph, and he said, ‘Your Nativity is ready. Would you like to come and see it?’” recalled Parrish, who was told that the slab of wood used to create the Nativity scene was called Black Heart Myrtle Wood. “It turned out amazing and it is one of my favorites.”
The materials, the colors and the inclusion of animals and other objects in the dozens of different scenes at Florence’s display convey a sense of the nationality or geographical location of the set’s builder. There are depictions of people of color ranging from white to dark brown in the exhibits. There are also different approaches taken by the collection’s owners. Some like to find a special piece to add to their collection, others like to buy them at low prices and then simply give them away.
Michael Simmons doesn’t consider himself a religious person. He is drawn to the design and color elements of the sets and said he spends part of his spare time looking for sets to display and share.
“I only keep a dozen or so each year and the rest of them I give away. I collect them throughout the year at different garage sales or thrift stores in the offseason when I can pick them up for a few dollars,” he said while unwrapping pieces for this year’s display. “At the end of the festival, I will give away as many as two dozen of these to homes that don’t have a Nativity.”
While delicately placing a piece from one of his 40 or more sets for display, Simmons seemed to light up, then described his plans for later in the holiday season.
“After I get done here, I will take some of these to Shorewood (Senior Living). There are some people there who can’t get out and about, so I’ve got over 40 sets that we are going to put out there for the holidays,” he said. “I will be able to give some more away to residents or family members that don’t have a Nativity scene of their own.”
Parrish has decided to try to cut back on adding to her expansive collection of Nativity sets, although that may be more difficult then she had anticipated.
“I promised myself I was not going to add any new ones this year and I’ve done pretty good so far — I’ve only added four,” she said.
The Florence Nativity Festival began Friday and continues this weekend from 1 to 5 p.m. today and tomorrow, Dec. 2. It is free to the public and there will be musical performances throughout the day.