Tucked onto the second floor of the Centenary United Methodist Church is a sight to behold: More than 350 nativity sets crowd the tables and hang from the walls of the small church building. They come from nearly 50 different countries and at least five different continents.
There are sets made out of clay, out of cloth, out of corncobs and thistle. There are sets made out of wood and glass and metal. There are papier-mâché sets, limestone sets, bamboo sets. Sets made from silk and sets made from cotton. Nut-shell sets and banana-leaf sets. Plastic sets and coal sets and sets made from brass.
Oh, and there’s at least one set pieced from a brown paper sack.
All of these sets will be on display the first three weekends of December at the Centenary United Methodist Church, 245 N. Fourth St., for the church’s 16th annual Festival of Nativities.
Chris Jump owns more than 50 of the nativity sets. She snatches them up at garage sales, estate sales and auctions. She lurks on the pages of eBay, hunts down new nativity scenes, then bids once or not at all before swooping in at the last minute to win auction.
Jump has a degree in anthropology, and her favorite nativity scenes have emerged from different countries: One from Peru made out of paper with Mary nursing the baby Jesus; one from France featuring Santons, or little saints, clustered together with figurines of townspeople dispersed through the throng.
“The history of this style of nativity dates back to the French Revolution when the churches were locked and people had to celebrate Christmas in their homes,” says Jump.
Jump’s parents often give her a nativity scene at Christmastime, and she keeps several of hers on her mantel all year long — but she has to be careful or her cats Cooper and Bodie will swat them down. In November she trudges to the basement and pulls out her nativity sets so she can begin the arduous process of putting them on display.
Every member of the congregation plays a part in the event. Dale Kring, 81, is handyman, jack of all trades. He patrols the church to help hang lights and set up tables, lugging a tool box with him, just in case. Hayden Poe, 6, wraps spices for apple cider or tests strip protectors for electrical outlets. Anthony Poe, 4, wanders around hauling and handing off screws that will be used to set up some of the scenes. Connie Hadl, charged with crafting a timeline for the group to follow, says the event is only made possible by the combined hard work of the entire congregation.
Centenary United members operate the Treats and Treasures Gift Shop on the weekends the nativity scenes are on display. Wanda Kring, 78, runs the shop. She’s been doing it for a decade. She and others create the products that layer the tables: tree skirts, pot holders, pin cushions, aprons, gloves. Hand-knitted scarves. Tree ornaments shaped like Jayhawks. Homemade Christmas cards. Some members make gingersnaps, brownies and peanut clusters. And Kring jars and sells homemade jam: raspberry, strawberry, blackberry and peach. Her husband, Dale, the handyman, makes peanut brittle. The gift room tends to take in $2,000 to $2,500 each year.
Kring toils for hours upon hours to make it happen. It’s hard work, she says, but worth it.
“I just can’t tell you how much I enjoy it,“ she says. “To see the looks on their faces when they come in. The person who comes for the first time is in awe over this. They just can’t believe that this little church could put on such a display.”
Visitors receive complimentary apple cider, and there’s a table layered with books and puzzles for children to play with. But the centerpiece is the nativity display.
“One I have in my collection is made from marbles, made by women in Chile creating an income for themselves,” says Hadl.
Many people who come view the nativity scenes for the first time stagger through in amazement, jaws dropped, eyes bright. Often they make it a yearly event after that.