United Methodists share stories of beloved Nativity scenes

A tradition in England involved baking a mince pie in the shape of a manger to hold baby Jesus until dinnertime when the pie was eaten. When the Puritans banned Christmas celebrations in the 17th century, they also passed laws forbidding such pies, calling them “idolaterie in crust.”

The ancient legislation, perhaps, explains why Nativity “pies” did not show up in a recent post on The United Methodist Church’s official Facebook page requesting stories and photos of favorite crèche scenes.

Pastries aside, owners cherish and adore Nativity sets made from the likes of olive wood, felt, clay, paper-mâché, porcelain, plastic and carved stone in a variety of shapes and sizes and from as far away places as Haiti, Russia, Bethlehem, Germany, El Salvador, Peru, Kenya, and Switzerland.

While all Nativities featured the Christ child, along with Mary and, usually, Joseph, sets also contained some non-traditional characters, including dinosaurs, Spock, McDonald’s Happy Meal toys, Santa Claus, and GI Joe.

“The year our son was three, he realized King Herod tried to kill baby Jesus,” recalled Pam Jones, a member of First United Methodist Church in Clanton, Ala. “That Sunday afternoon, he set up all his GI Joes in full battle gear to guard the Christ child in the Nativity. Our son is 30 now and GI Joes still guard baby Jesus every year.”

Nancy Faber’s Nativity set also is kid-friendly with a collection of animals that grows each year.

“We love our wooden manger scene,” says Faber of Kenly, N.C., who attends Centenary United Methodist Church in Smithfield, N.C. “The set is German made from the 1970s and we add animals yearly.”

For JoAnn Hall, a member of Trinity United Methodist Church in Smithfield, Va., her Nativity set is the first Christmas ornament unwrapped each year.

“It always makes me smile,” she says. “I bought it on my first mission trip to Haiti in 2011 and have brought similar ones back to my friends on subsequent trips. It is handmade by Haitian ladies and there is a whole lot of love in each little piece.”

The Nativity scene at Stetson United Methodist Church in Patten, Maine, has a whole lot of love in every big piece.

“About 35 years ago, my junior high Sunday school class and I decided our church needed a manger scene, so I drew the outline of Mary and Joseph on plywood, (my husband) Ted cut them out, and then I drew their faces and clothes,” says Terry Pettengill. “My students painted the figures. I mentioned to (church member) Rodney Harris what we were doing. Within a week, he came with a crèche and manger he had made in his wood shop. We were all so excited! I found a baby doll in the nursery, bundled it in a blanket, and we laid it in the manger as we set up the crèche. Rodney hooked up a light inside the crèche, and our church had its first manger scene.”

Harris, who passed away earlier this year, stored the items in his barn until 2012, when the Pettengills inherited the responsibility. 

“It’s a special story,” says Stetson United Methodist Church member Raymond Foss about the church’s outdoor Nativity scene. Foss, whose wife, Ruth Foss, is pastor at the church, submitted the photos and the story.

Some Nativity scenes have made their way into year-round decorating, adorning homes long past the Christmas season.

“My favorite Nativity scene is the one that I bought in Bethlehem when visiting Israel years ago,” says Karen Canfield, a member at McFarlin Memorial United Methodist Church in Norman, Okla. “It is made from olive wood and it is very precious to me. I never put it away—it stays out all year long!”

This feature was originally published December 15, 2014.

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