By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
DEWITT — Earlier this month, sixth-graders at St. Joseph Catholic School displayed their handmade nativity scenes on tables outside the main office. The students beamed with pride as they showed off their creations.
Student Cole Niemann explained that he found a way to remember his late grandfather, Steve Niemann, in his project by repurposing old barn wood. “It feels very special,” to use something that belonged to him, Cole said. He plans to display the nativity scene at home every year.
For nearly 30 years, the nativity scene project has been an essential part of religion teacher Lola Blaser’s Advent curriculum. Her hope is for the students “to have something they can take with them” throughout their lives to remind them of their faith. Two nativity scenes made by students in the 1990s, along with a 25-year-old news article about the annual project were also on display this year.
As Christmas approaches each year, Blaser reviews the Gospels’ depictions of the Nativity. Within a two-week timeframe, each student creates a nativity scene that features Mary, Joseph and Jesus and a place where they will stay. The nativity scene cannot exceed the size of the student’s desk and it cannot be constructed from food. Family members are encouraged to offer assistance. “Sometimes (students) get to know that family member a little better,” Blaser said.
Carson Gannon’s grandfather, Dale Ford, helped the sixth-grader cut pallet wood for the nativity scene. “We’ve worked together on a lot of stuff,” Carson said of his grandfather. “We always get along. It’s really fun working with him.”
Aleena Nicolay received assistance from her mom and several extended family members. Some helped glue popsicle sticks together to make the stable’s frame. Others helped her make figures out
of wood balls and tiny, inverted pots. The Jesus figure will hide under Mary’s “skirt” until it is time for him to be “born” and placed in the manager. Aleena gave the base of her nativity scene a sentimental touch by using a tree stump slice from her grandparents’ property.
While many of the students chose to use wood for their projects, some take a different path. A handful of students this year painted on glass jars, lanterns or candleholders. Aiden McGarry made a stable by cutting a basketball in half.
Trinity Tague, a 4H member, used the project as an opportunity to learn a new skill: wood burning. “I wanted to do something unique that I hadn’t done before,” she said, noting that her parents helped her print and transfer a design onto a soft, beveled wood board. Then, she put on safety gloves and began to burn text and outlines into the wood.
In addition to creating a nativity scene, students write an original Nativity story in their language arts class, currently taught by Demi Franck. “For the story, the main focus is the message that God sent his son to save us from our sins,” Franck explained. “Some students write poems, create digital storytelling, write a dramatization or create a diary entry. The various formats allow the kids to incorporate their own creativity and personalize their version of the Nativity story.”
Though the two assignments are separate, they often inspire each other. That was the case for Ella Goodall. “I wrote a poem that included dialogue from a mouse that witnessed the birth of Jesus.” Her nativity scene — created with removable painted wood pieces in the style of an Advent calendar — featured a mouse on the roof, overlooking the scene.
The students displayed the nativity scenes outside the school’s main office for about a week before moving them to the gym for the school’s Christmas concert Dec. 8. Then, they took their creations home to enjoy with their families for the remainder of the Advent and Christmas seasons.
Several of this year’s participants are second-generation students of Blaser, including Ella. Her father, Andrew Goodall, brought in his nativity scene from 1996 — minus a few key figures. Blaser also brought in her daughter Elizabeth’s nativity scene from 1998. Blaser said the students’ designs haven’t changed too much over the years but there are fewer cords nowadays due to the popularization of battery-operated fairy lights.
As with every group of sixth-graders, Blaser hopes this year’s students will treasure their nativity scenes for years to come.
Nativity scenes in the Catholic Church
In its present form, the custom of displaying figures depicting the birth of Jesus Christ owes its origin to St. Francis of Assisi, who made the Christmas nativity scene or manger for Christmas Eve of 1223. (www.usccb.org)