Late Friday afternoon, Ruth Hodge of Carlisle opened the door to Stock Hall at St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church and carefully pushed in several boxes. By the time everything was unwrapped and set up, there were 17 nativities filling a single table.
Hodge’s collection is just a small sampling of the nativity sets on display this weekend as St. Paul holds its third Creche Festival. The festival will be held from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
On Thursday and Friday, festival organizers Jackie Gusler, June Reed, Judy Gross and Janet Doherty welcomed those bringing nativities, helping to carefully unwrap the treasured pieces and set them up on the display tables.
The idea for the nativity festival was born after the “senior saints” group took a trip to a similar festival and thought that holding one at St. Paul would be a good project for the missions and outreach committee, Reed said.
“It started out in two small rooms in one part of the church and it got so large that we graduated to here,” Gusler said.
This year, participants had registered 250 nativities, but more were expected to arrive, which could bring the total number of nativities on display to close to 300.
“I think it’s just a wonderful thing,” Hodge said of the festival. “I love every one I see.”
Hodge’s love for nativities started in the 1960s when her sister-in-law gave her a set made of paper mache. Hodge admits she should have stored it better. Over the years, it drew moisture, creating holes in some of the pieces.
“I still put it up. It takes up all of my china closet,” she said. “And I hide where the holes are.”
Nativities on display this year are made from a variety of materials including clay, glass, wood, fabric, plastic and much more. Gusler pointed to one made from nails by artist Travis Burford that replicates nativities made in the 1890s and the 1900s.
“It’s amazing to me the imagination that some people have when they make a nativity,” Gusler said.
Some nativities recall the downtown of Carlisle decades ago as they were purchased from stores like Woolworths and Trimmer’s 5 & 10. At Trimmer’s, the figures were 10 cents a piece and sheep were a bargain at two for 15 cents.
Many of those who put their nativities on display wrote brief histories of the nativity on index cards or typed slips of paper placed in front of the set.
But the history of one nativity is a complete mystery to festival organizers.
A print of a nativity that joins the ancient story with figures in clothing reminiscent of the mid-20th century is displayed prominently on an easel near the front of the room. The print, Gusler said, was found in the sub-basement of the church just this year. It was brought up, cleaned and put on display.
Gross is hopeful that a longtime member of the congregation or another festival visitor will be able to tell them a little about the print. “It had to be somewhere, but it ended up down there,” she said.
Dave Hutchinson of Carlisle carefully placed each of the pale blue figurines of one of his six nativities in their proper places. His late parents bought the set in Tijuana, Mexico – a place Hutchinson said he can’t imagine his parents visiting.
Hutchinson remembers when the festival started in the smaller rooms.
“Now, to see what it’s grown into. It’s just so many,” he said, looking around at all the nativities. “It’s wonderful.”