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First Presbyterian Church of Fredonia, New York displays hundreds of creches

Its Christmas message is clear: ‘Jesus was born for all’

by Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today

Pictured here is one of the hundreds of nativities displayed in the sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church of Fredonia, New York. (Photo courtesy of Holly Clark-Porter)

In 1223, three years before his death, St. Francis of Assisi visited Greccio, a picturesque Italian town built on a mountainside. Christmas was drawing near, and Francis realized that the hermitage’s chapel would be too small for the townsfolk to gather for Mass. Francis thought back to a niche in a rock near the town square that he had passed on his way to the town and had an idea. He would set up an altar and celebrate the nativity there. He didn’t stop with creating an altar. Francis, wanting to make the events of that holy night real for those attending, prepared a manger with hay and found a local farmer who was willing to loan him his ox and donkey.

When the night of the Mass arrived, Francis waited by the manger for those to come. The hush of the evening was soon broken with the sound of footsteps crunching on the cold-encrusted dirt path. The flickering of the lanterns the worshipers held illuminated the darkness. Francis stood before the nativity scene he had created and began telling the story of how God so loved the world that he gave that world his Son.

Since then, thanks to Francis, nativity scenes have become a beloved part of the holiday landscape. The figurines that capture Mary’s serene gaze, Joseph’s startled faith and baby Jesus’ knowing smile have been inviting onlookers to stop, ponder and step into the Christmas story as those in Greccio did so long ago.

The Rev. Holly Clark-Porter, though, found herself doing more than stepping into the Christmas story her first holiday serving at First Presbyterian Church of Fredonia, New York. She found herself swimming in a sea of hundreds of creches.

Clark-Porter arrived in Fredonia just as planning for the 2021 Christmas season was underway at the church. Even before she and her spouse, KC Clark-Porter, unpacked their boxes of dishes along with their dog’s favorite toys, she began getting questions from those in the community inquiring about when the church’s nativity scenes would be displayed.

She soon discovered that First Presbyterian not only set up one or two or even three nativity scenes, but hundreds. The tradition, Clark-Porter says, began years ago with a member who adored creches. She then began sharing her extensive collection with the congregation, who then invited the community to come and marvel at the many depictions of the holy family, including not just a multitude of ethnicities but even the materials that the scenes are made from.

“I heard one year there were 600 creches displayed throughout the sanctuary,” said Clark-Porter, adding that her reaction when first learning about the church’s beloved holiday tradition was an unfiltered, “Really?! What?!”

“I just couldn’t imagine how all the creches were displayed,” she said. Clark-Porter got her answer when wooden boards and makeshift shelving were placed around the sanctuary. While First Presbyterian’s nativity display hit an all-time high of 600 creches one year and came in at 300 in 2021, Clark-Porter said the number depends on how many people are willing to donate. Families in the church add to the number, while even more families within the community come forward with their offerings. First Presbyterian hopes to get 400 this year, Clark-Porter adds.

The nativity display, though, is an integral part of a larger mission project for the church: its Christmas alternative market, where vendors for fair-trade coffee and Heifer International offer “holiday gift-giving with a purpose” ideas. But before anyone can shop, they first walk through the nativity displays, said Clark-Porter.

“You walk throughout the sanctuary and see all these variations of the holy family and then you are rerouted into the market. It’s as if you are being sent this Christmas to take care of one another,” she said, adding that there is something powerful as a pastor to worship among so many creches representing so many different faces of Jesus. “It’s nice to walk into the sanctuary and see the Christmas message so clearly: Jesus was born for all,” said Clark-Porter.

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today.

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