BY TOM LAVIS
Members of First Presbyterian Church in downtown Johnstown will once again give the community a spiritual gift in the form of their Festival of the Nativity.
Now in its 30th year, the festival will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 1 to 3 and 6 to 9 p.m. Dec. 8 at the church, 309 Lincoln St.
Nearly 400 scenes depicting the birth of Jesus Christ will be on display in the chapel and throughout the church.
Other religious objects
“In addition to all the nativities, we will have other religious objects, such as crosses, angels, throws and banners depicting Christ’s birth,” said Isabel Cruse of Conemaugh Township, Somerset County, one of more than 10 church members serving on the festival committee.
The creches are on loan from members of the church and the community.
Many of the nativities are several hundred years old, while others are modern.
The committee has gone to great lengths to give the church the fitting atmosphere to exemplify Christ’s birth.
“We use a lot of burlap and apple crates to symbolize the barren and rugged conditions that would have been found during the actual birth of Christ,” Cruse said.
“Votive candles will be lit to lend a more awe-inspiring and meditative atmosphere to the festival.”
The Festival of the Nativity began three decades ago by the late Lois Siehl, the sister of then-pastor James Cuppett.
When the festival began, it featured a respectable display of about 100 nativities.
Siehl thought there was too much emphasis on shopping, Santa Claus and other secular diversions.
She wanted to bring Christ back into Christmas.
“The nativity festival has been called a spirit gift because it has drawn attention to the true meaning of Christmas, the birth of the world’s savior,” Cruse said.
People may not realize that following the 25th edition of the festival, there were thoughts of ending it.
“The church members decided that the event was an important outreach ministry and a wonderful gift to the Greater Johnstown community,” said Caryl Roach of Ferndale, another committee member.
“We have discovered that people are eager to return each year to be a part of this, and it’s a true inspiration. It’s an event that features the sights and sounds of the Christmas season.”
The nativity scene is said to have originated with St. Francis of Assisi in 1223 in Greccio, Italy.
The scenes on display come from all over the world and range from traditional and fragile pieces to more colorful and durable sets.
Organizers are keen on keeping things fresh and position nativity scenes and displays in such a way as to inspire people for the Christmas season.
The nativities range in size from tiny to large. They are made of a variety of materials ranging from metal and crystal to wood and ceramic.
There also will be a display of oversized statues of the Holy Family inside the church sanctuary.
“We have one piece showing Joseph holding baby Jesus, which is seldom seen,” Cruse said.
“Usually the Christ child is in the manger or in Mary’s arms.”
Many of the nativities are kept in storage during the year.
“People have donated them to the church because families know how important the nativities were to their loved ones who have passed and it helps keep their traditions alive,” Cruse said.
Varieties of nativities, some made from beeswax or seashells, represent cultures from all over the world.
“We have a new nativity that is a silhouette against a blue sky,” Cruse said.
Roach said that it is interesting to see how each culture creates a nativity that is distinctive to their own homeland, such as Native American and even Eskimo.
Roach discovered a set in Israel on a trip to the Holy Land with her late mother, Alice Rinehart.
“It reminds me of the things we saw together while visiting the Holy Land, and continues to be an inspiration to me and I hope to others, as well,” she said.
Music will be the focus in the church’s sanctuary with performances by bell choirs, church choirs, bands, choral groups and more.
Light refreshments will be served in the memorial parlor.
The following is the musical lineup for the Festival of the Nativity:
6 p.m.: First Presbyterian bell choir.
6:20 p.m.: Beulah Glory Ringers Quartet.
6:40 p.m.: Organist Richard Kimmel.
7 p.m.: Bedford Community Singers.
7:30 p.m.: Bo Moore.
8 p.m.: St. Benedict choir.
6 p.m.: Michael Facciani.
6:30 p.m.: Reed Band.
7:30 p.m.: The Joyful Notes.
8:30 p.m.: St. Andrew choir.
1 p.m.: Youth recital.
6 p.m.: Polish Heritage Choir.
6:30 p.m.: Westmont Presbyterian choir.
6:45 p.m.: St. Matthew's Anglican Church Choir.
7 p.m.: Forest Hills chorus.
7:15 p.m.: St. Clement choir.
7:30 p.m.: Bishop McCort ensemble.
7:45 p.m.: First Presbyterian choir.
8 p.m.: Combined choirs.
Tom Lavis covers Features for the Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter.com/Tom LavisTD.