The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

December 10, 2012

Nativity festival stirs bittersweet memories

Jim Siehl
The Tribune-Democrat

— The Greater Johnstown Festival of the Nativity has come and gone for the 29th time, fulfilling once again the Christmas message of hope, peace and love followers of Jesus Christ find in this holy time.

Unique for our area, the three-day ecumenical celebration lived up to all expectations with beautiful music filling the large sanctuary of the downtown host First Presbyterian Church.

It is always a thrill to hear the powerful and musically brilliant performance of the Johnstown Reed Band as well as combined choral and choir voices (nearly 100 strong) closing the event with Handel’s immortal “Hallelujah Chorus.”

The late Carl Miller, who participated in the festival as both director of the Westmont Hilltop High School chorus and the Westmont Presbyterian Church choir, once wryly noted that he liked ending a program with the “Hallelujah Chorus” – “You are assured of a standing ovation.”

If you need further explanation as to the mirth behind Carl’s witty remark, traditionally audiences rise for the singing of this grand oratorio.

It was very satisfying to see and hear the choral departments of both Bishop McCort and Forest Hills high schools taking part. In the early years it was common for local high school choruses to participate. Why the scheduling ceased until now probably had something to do with separation of secular and religious activities.

In addition to the music and its mesmerizing charm, the heart of the festival is carried out in the artistically arranged crèches on loan from members of the community at large as well as inspiring decorations in keeping with the season thoughtfully placed throughout the church.

More than 350 images of the baby Jesus were counted in the Nativity displays, according to Isabel Cruse, one of a handful of dedicated, committed individuals whose loyalty to the festival goes back to the beginning.

Isabel has the gift. Not everyone, probably few, have her creativity skill that can artfully assemble the pieces in lovely displays.

Looking ahead to next Christmas, which will mark the festival’s 30th anniversary, Isabel has said after that event it would be an appropriate time for her to step aside. The fact that Isabel as well as a few others of her generation, among them Leah Williams, Isabel’s sister Janet Braude and Ruth Fisher, still are involved is highly complimentary to their devotion.  

Lynne Williams, from a younger generation, certainly belongs with that group. As talk becomes more open as to the fate of the festival with so many key people aging, Lynne, a former director, vowed in a conversation last December:

“As long as I have breath, there will be a Festival of the Nativity.”

As a former member of First Presbyterian Church, I long have admired Lynne because of her willingness to do the tough jobs in the church. No task is too small, too dirty for her. She and her husband, Bill, with help of course, for a number of years have prepared a Thanksgiving Day dinner served at the church for those left out from more traditional family observances.

Preparations for the festival are a daunting task because they don’t begin until after Thanksgiving and must be completed by the first weekend in December. The reason behind the short time frame has always been concern for the well being of the crèches. Immediately following the festival, all the displays are returned to their owners.

As the widowed husband of the founder of the festival, I have some insight and a great appreciation for what is involved. Lois began contacting prospective participants a good five months before the event. Because it was her nature to do things herself, worn out she felt compelled to give up the position as director after three years. Initially, I thought the festival would be a one-year project.

Lois was always recognized at ensuing festival programs for being the person who made possible this wonderful example of what uniting the talents of so many can accomplish in an ecumenical way. Those kind words were appreciated to be sure  … as the decision to dedicate the 29th festival in her memory following her passing a few months ago.

It was always Lois’ focus as well as mine that the real heroes in this magnificent tribute to the birth of our Savior are those who have kept it going in such splendid fashion all these years.

My belief is that if it continues to be God’s will, fresh, equally-talented people will step forth. The Festival of the Nativity is established. It has become a tradition. Twenty years, 25 years and soon to be 30 make it so.

Lois believed the festival could become bigger, much bigger involving events at multiple downtown churches. The opportunity is there. Does anyone have the vision?

Jim Siehl of Schellsburg, formerly of Richland Township, retired in 1991 after 44 years as a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat.