I confess, I was not super excited when Donna Sheetz flagged me down between choir practice and church a few Sundays ago, placing a large cardboard box in my hands.

Along with being First Presbyterian’s cake baker extraordinaire – yes, her name is Sheetz and she bakes cakes – Donna is in charge of our annual Nativity Celebration.

This will be the church’s 12th year hosting the Nativity Celebration, which has become a popular local holiday tradition. Hundreds of people wander through our fellowship hall every year to marvel at 125-plus nativity scenes – I grew up calling them “creches,” but you don’t hear that word much anymore –  that hail from around the world.

This year’s event promises to feature past favorites along with some nativities that have never been seen before. They’re always beautifully displayed, and each has a little write-up to go with it. If you haven’t been before, you should! It’s quite a thing.

Anyway, that morning Donna handed me this large box and said, “I just wanted you to see this nativity. I think if you hold it and touch it and spend some time with it, you’ll see there’s a story… “

And there it was. She wanted to me to write a story.

“Get in line, sister,” was my first thought. But that didn’t seem very Christianly, so I kept it to myself. Besides, I was prepared!

“Oh, Sissy already sent me a nice press release about the Nativity Celebration,” I replied cheerfully, pushing the box back toward Donna. “I promised to run it in a late November issue!”

(At a paper like this one, the editor’s job – mine – gets ridiculously hectic over the holidays. So many events to cover, so little time. And space. And assistance. This was ONE thing I thought I’d already checked off my list.)

“Just take it home,” Donna smiled, Yoda-like. “Spend some time with it.”

She knew.

I opened the box after church. At first glance, the nativity inside was nothing to rave about. Some of the sets we’ve displayed over the years are stunning works of art, but this one was cardboard, and seemed a little pedestrian. Maybe even a little chintzy.

Don’t get me wrong – it was impressively large. “Sixteen Beautifully Colored Pieces Providing a Five Foot Scene of the Nativity,” the box boasted.

But it was old. And faded. The pieces were in decent condition, but the box was falling apart. There was tape everywhere.

And writing. Cursive handwriting. There was cursive handwriting covering the inside of the box that held the nativity scene.

Y’all know me. I’m a word person. When I saw the handwriting, I felt my resistance slipping away.

The description card with the nativity read:

Manufactured in Milwaukee during the depression era, this wonderful nativity crib set was purchased several years ago at a yard sale. The original owner purchased it for $1 before 1940 at her local Kresges Store and from the diary she kept written in the box, it was one of her favorites, displayed every Christmas for over 60 years. We may not know her name, but after reading the account of some of her yearly thoughts and feelings as she packed her treasured nativity away for another year, we feel she has become a close friend…

Along with covering the inside of the box, this mystery woman had filled several sheets of paper – also in the box – with her annual musings, starting sometime in the 1970s, decades after she bought the nativity. She wrote about everything.

The last entry I read was from December 1989:

“This will be our first Christmas without a tree. Frank has no vision in his left eye due to glaucoma and his right eye is almost gone, so he can’t see enough to do the things he used to do . . .  It’s been a sad year in so many ways . . . Worst of all, we lost Steven on the 4th of July . . .  

“So much has happened this year . . .  a lot of tragedies and a lot of changes that are good. In Europe communism is on the wane. Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia. In Germany the wall came down. Romania, even Russia, all free now in such a short time. Praise God.”


Donna was right. This nativity  – allow me to call it a creche, for old time’s sake – is very special. Every nativity on display at First Pres will be special in its own way.

 “These are beautiful pieces of art from all the around the world,” Donna says. “Some are simple and some are ornate, but they all tell the same story of Jesus’ birth, each showcasing the rich culture from where it was made.”

Each year, new nativities are added to the mix. People from all over the community lend their scenes, many of them with interesting stories to share. “Some nativity collectors have grand stories of travel, gifts or inheritance,” says Donna, “while others found their treasures at a local thrift store.”

I’m happy that the Nativity Celebration is coming a little earlier than usual this year, during the first weekend of December, simultaneous with Beaufort’s Holiday Weekend downtown. (You know the one – Night on the Town, Boat Parade, Christmas Parade . . . )

I like the idea that during all that sparkly hustle and bustle, commerce and commotion, our church will be quietly keeping Advent – with its own particular radiance – just a few blocks away.

I’m hoping it will center me. Set me up for a calmer, more peaceful and prayerful December. Remind me of the “reason for the season,” as the oh-so-hackneyed (but true!) expression goes.

Admission is free and all are welcome! One need not be a Presbyterian – nor any kind of ‘terian at all – to enjoy this beautiful, soulful gift to the community. In all my years as the world’s worst Christian, I’ve noticed that almost everyone, whatever their background, seems warmly predisposed toward Baby Jesus & Co. around the holidays. Everybody loves a nativity scene at Christmas.

Please come join us.

The 12th Annual Nativity Celebration will be open Friday, December 1 and Saturday, December 2 from 10 am – 4 pm and Sunday, December 3 from noon – 3pm. Handicap accessible and all ages are welcome. First Presbyterian Church Fellowship Hall, 1201 North Street in downtown Beaufort.