A Season of Unity

by Jonathan Wright

The Community Festival of Nativities celebrates diversity and a common foundation.

They come in all shapes, sizes and materials imaginable: ceramic, fiber, glass, alabaster, steel, pewter, bronze, paper, seeds, beads… even coconut and chocolate. Some are tucked inside snowglobes or displayed on ornaments, and one is etched in a mirror. There’s at least one quilt; another was welded together by a local engineer.

“I have a resin nativity on display, and the figurines are all black bears,” adds Kimberly Flack, the event’s PR coordinator. “It's special to me because I spent my childhood in Southeast Alaska, and black bears were as common there as squirrels are here.”

While a handful of such events exist around the country, Peoria’s Community Festival of Nativities is one of the few to involve multiple churches of different denominations. Now in its second year, the festival is sponsored by St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and All Saints Greek Orthodox Church—and individuals of all faiths are welcome.

Interfaith Cooperation
In the Christian tradition, the nativity scene (also known as a crèche or presepio) is an exhibit of objects related to the birth of Jesus. The practice dates back to 1223, when Saint Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene—a living nativity, staged in a cave—inspired by his visit to the Holy Land. Over the last eight centuries, a variety of nativity traditions have arisen in countries all over the world, all with the same foundational underpinnings.

The Peoria festival took shape last year, the brainchild of Shelly Crespo, who pushed for the concept after attending a similar event in Texas. “I was deeply moved by the variety of ways that God’s children all over the earth expressed their interpretation of the birth of Jesus Christ,” explains the festival director. “Our display provides a place for individuals and families to reflect upon the sacred event as they usher in the Christmas season.”

Her initial goal was to bring together Peoria’s religious community over their common bond, and Crespo has worked tirelessly to enact this vision. She’s assisted by an executive committee whose members spearhead various aspects of the festival, as well as a 25-member planning committee. More than 150 other volunteers, from Bloomington to Galesburg and beyond, will help with hosting, decorating, electrical and other needs—in addition to those who lend their nativities for display. 

Lighting the World
“We had no idea how many people would bring nativities to display, or how many volunteers would show up,” recalls Crespo of last year’s festival, which showcased more than 600 nativities from over 40 countries. “[They] came pouring in, and the end result was beautiful. It was gratifying to foster friendships with people from different religious faiths and create something so beautiful.”

“It was truly a sight to behold,” exclaims Sister Kathleen Ann Mourisse, Sisters of St. Francis of the Immaculate Conception. “The variety of sizes and materials and the beautiful manner in which all the nativity pieces were so lovingly displayed were amazing. The children were given a fun scavenger-type activity to keep them occupied, while their parents took in the beauty of all the displays.”

“It was a wonderful way to begin the Christmas season,” adds Scott Johnson, stake president, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “The comments made by visitors and participants made it clear that others had a similar experience.”

Members from a variety of congregations joined in the effort, contributing over 1,200 volunteer hours. In addition to the co-sponsoring churches, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Immaculate Conception were instrumental in this work, for which they were recognized with last year’s “Light the World Award.”

“I was happy that this event was so ecumenical,” notes Sister Kathleen Ann. “All were united in their appreciation of our unity in recognizing the importance of the ‘reason for the season.’”

Not One Like Another
“You will not see one crèche like the other,” declares Julia Ghantous of All Saints Greek Orthodox Church, who serves on the planning committee. “Some of them are very elaborate; some of them are very simple. Some depict the event through animals and with different mediums. Some will be out of paper and others out of bone china.”

This year’s festival is expected to feature around 1,000 nativities, including a special collection from retired Monsignor Charles J. Beebe, who was gifted more than 300 of them during his time of service in the Peoria area. “After his retirement,” Crespo notes, “he donated his collection to St. Bede's Abbey in Peru, Illinois, and they have graciously agreed to let us borrow and showcase many of those nativities.”

Family heirlooms stretching across the decades will be on proud display, alongside nativities created specifically for the festival. They include nativity scenes from Russia, China, Indonesia and Poland; children’s nativities (including one made of rubber bands); and others constructed from a range of unusual sources: corn husks, pomegranate seeds, black coal from Welsh mines.

There’s a Kenyan nativity crafted from banana fibers; an olivewood nativity from Bethlehem; a beaded nativity made by orphans in India; and a nativity from Peru, carved inside of a dried gourd. It’s an eclectic collection, to be sure, but tied together by a universal foundation.

Growing Cultural Traditions
Along with its growing collection of nativities, the festival is expanding in other ways as well. This year it will be open for private reservations—for school groups, nursing homes and the like. Father Beebe will lecture on the history and significance of the crèche, while Fred Johnson will speak about his father, Rolan Johnson, whose nativity-themed Christmas cards are an enduring tradition in the Peoria community.

There will again be children’s activities, as well as a live nativity scene—all accompanied by seasonal music from local performers, including the Peoria Area Civic Chorale, numerous solo artists, and a variety of groups from Morton High School, Peoria Notre Dame and St. Vincent de Paul. (And don’t miss the promotional float in Peoria’s Santa Claus Parade on Nov 24th.)

The Community Festival of Nativities enhances our region’s culture, suggests Sister Kathleen Ann. “It is a beautiful display of the creativity and artistry of many craftsmen from all over the world. The instrumental and vocal music also demonstrates some of our local musical talents.”

In the future, Crespo hopes the sponsor base will continue to grow and that the exhibit will rotate hosts among different churches for years to come. “Any activity that fosters friendships and cultivates understanding,” she adds, “is good for Peoria.” a&s

The Community Festival of Nativities takes place December 1st through 3rd at 3700 W. Reservoir Road in Peoria. There is no cost to attend. For more details and volunteer information—or to lend your own nativity—visit CommunityFestivalofNativities.com.

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