Each holiday season, Centenary United Methodist Church turns a room on its second floor into an area to display the real images of Christmas.
More than 200 creches scenes with baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men, angels and typically such animals as a donkey, cattle and camels will be displayed this month during the church's annual Festival of the Nativities.
In its seventh year, the festival is expected to draw more than 500 viewers in the next three weekends.
"The first year, we were barebones, but we had 125 nativity sets. I thought maybe we'd get 75," said Nancy Atchley, a church member who helped establish the festival. "We've added to it every year."
The creches come from throughout the world: China, East Germany, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Ireland, Italy, Israel, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Peru, South Africa, Switzerland and the Ukraine. They are made from a variety of materials, including stone, ceramic, porcelain, china, pottery, paper, clay, wood, bamboo, tin and sculpted mud.
The Rev. Judy Long O'Neal, pastor of the church, said she particularly likes the nativity sets that reflect specific cultures. Among her favorites are a creche from Alaska that depicts the holy family as Eskimos, the manger as an igloo and the animals as seals and polar bears, and a creche from Africa that depicts a dark-skinned holy family and such animals as elephants and giraffes near a grass hut.
"People really think about the images of the Christmas story," she said.
O'Neal said the festival has expanded to include a stable scene at the church's entryway, a gift shop with craft items and baked goods made by church members, and a "giving tree" decorated with stockings, in which people can leave donations to charities.
The room displaying the creches has dimmed lighting and festive decorations. The scent of spiced cider fills the hall. The Free State High School Chamber Singers will perform at 1 p.m. Sunday, and additional groups will provide music at other times.
"We try to make it a peaceful atmosphere so they can contemplate the real meaning of Christmas," O'Neal said.
O'Neal said a number of people come to the church following the annual Old-Fashioned Christmas Parade to see the nativity sets. (The parade is at 11 a.m. today in downtown Lawrence.) Others stop in on their way to see the lights of the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Mo.
"We have had bus tours come by from Iowa, Missouri, Liberal," she said. " More and more people come and say it's become part of their family tradition."
The festival has no admission charge; donations are accepted.