AYER -- Nativities from around the world will be on display at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church this weekend, continuing a 17-year tradition started by a member of the congregation, Carolyn Smith, who owns the 475-piece collection.
Set for Saturday, Dec. 9 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 10 from 1 to 4 p.m., the free public event has become hugely popular, she said.
St. Andrew's rector, Reverend Joyce L. Scherer-Hoock, said the Nativity exhibit is an important event for the 125-year-old congregation, showcasing a relaxed and accepting place that welcomes everyone. Built in 1892 and renovated by church members in recent years, the small structure itself -- gray, pebbled stone facade, Gothic-arched windows and stained glass-tinted interior -- is intriguing as well as inviting, resembling the 19th century English country churches that informed its architecture.
Although the Nativity exhibit, with cookies, spiced hot apple cider, Christmas music and children's activities, centers in the parish hall, about 30 pieces will be displayed in the sanctuary this year, Smith said, opening it to visitors.
Last year, the event coincided with a major snowstorm, Rev. Scherer-Hoock said, shrinking attendance to a handful that weekend. "We had hired an oboist from the BSO to perform," she said, along with a group of young musicians from the Conservatory. They showed up. Lacking much of an audience, the performers had plenty of cookies, she said.
Smith said that was disappointing. But another, earlier weather event actually boosted turnout instead.
When the Nativity exhibit was held during the New England ice storm several years ago, the church offered visitors heat, lights and hot coffee. People came in droves.
"We were swamped," Smith said.
Not that the event itself isn't enticement enough. Featuring exhibits from 56 countries and 30 of 50 U.S. states, Rev. Scherer-Hoock marveled at its size and scope. "I think we have more than... the National Cathedral," she said.
Smith said that may be the case. She's been collecting the Nativities for 17 years, on her travels and from folks who send them to her. These days, the Internet is another source, she said, though she has tried to curb her enthusiasm for new acquisitions.
Noting that many pieces in her collection come from countries with strong cultural ties to the message they convey, Smith said. Italy, Poland, Mexico, Peru, Guatamala...For the last couple of years, she's looked for Nativities from countries not yet represented, she said.
Asked what inspired her to start the Nativity exhibit, she cited holiday fatigue. Working in retail, she'd come to dread the Christmas season, she said, with its commercially-focused hubbub. Seeking an activity or event that would rekindle its deeper meaning, she recalled a Nativity exhibit held at her former church in Pennsylvania, years ago, peopled with pieces loaned by its parishioners. She consulted with the St. Andrew's congregation and they were on board with the idea.
So that's what it was, the first year, church members brought in their own family Nativities. Then her collecting adventures began and the event has "morphed and grown" since, Smith said. Today, she has Nativities from Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America, New Zealand and Australia, for example.
Some are new, bought on her travels. Others are vintage buys from e-Bay.
They all set the same scene, with the same cast: rustic stable, animals, shepherds, three kings, Mary, Joseph and at the center, the infant Jesus in a manger. What, then, makes each Nativity unique, interesting?
Internationally, they represent different cultures, Smith said. Figures might have facial features indicating their country of origin and surroundings that suggest its climate , animals, pieces made from local materials. Kisil stone from Kenya, in Africa, where Banana fiber is also used. One, from China, is made of camphor wood and retains its aroma. Those from Israel -- the Holy Land -- are made of olive wood, which grows abundantly there.
A Nativity made in Missouri is crafted of shaped, painted screens, the kind used in windows.
Some make a statement. A Nativity from Liberia, for example, is made from bullet casings, flattened and shaped. The craftsman's goal was to promote peace, Smith said. A Nativity from Mexico is made from recycled auto and bicycle parts. "It's a...diverse collection," she said."Each one is unique."
No matter how many times visitors come to the exhibit, they find something new, she said, with layouts geared to that goal. Some look for a Nativity from the country they came from or their ancestors did.
When she asks visitors to pick a favorite, answers are "all over the map," she said. Not surprising, given the global array they have to choose from.
Anything added this year? A knitted Nativity made by parishioners that will be raffled off.
Summing it up, Smith said the annual Nativity exhibit is "a lot of work," but it's clearly a labor of love.
And well worth a trip to St. Andrews this weekend, where there's a handicapped access ramp to enter the building and plenty of maneuvering room inside, she said. Christmas music, too.