It started with one person. Barb Watters had the vision, heart and determination to turn a single nativity and a single desire into a lasting gift for an entire community. She drew in other fellow believers like her husband David, Tom and Nancy Watson, Henry and Ruth Westle, Joan Thompson, Lane McLean and Vicky Thompson. Within a few years, they created an event that many in the Sidney area now consider the perfect beginning to a truly Christ-centered Christmas season by offering one of the largest crèche displays in the country. One only need enter into the building to step back in time and experience the sacred moment of Jesus Christ’s birth. “Soft lighting and Christmas music enhance the experience. Light refreshments are served in a quiet sitting room and a music video of the life of Christ plays quietly in the background. This is the gift we offer the community,” Nancy Watson says. This is a Sidney Christmas.
Barb Watters described how the event originated, “About 10 years ago, my son wrote home from his mission in Houston, Texas and described helping set up a nativity event there. I thought, ‘I could do something like that’. I’m a convert to the Church and had never thought to own a nativity set. The first Christmas after I was baptized, I bought one. When I decided to create the exhibit, I only owned that one nativity set, but I thought others must have some they would share. The first year, we had just three nativity sets. The next year we had five. We are on our ninth year and our family now owns about 300.” Other nativity sets are on loan from Church members in the greater Victoria area and bring the total on display to over 700.
The exhibit presents traditional Christmas scenes from many countries including Israel, Germany, Norway, Mexico, Japan, France, Italy, Africa, Canada and the United States. Many of the sets from Israel are crafted out of native olive wood and exquisite ebony sets come from Africa. Other scenes are made from ceramic, wood, cloth or modern resins. The exhibit displays original art in oils or acrylics as well as intricate needlework.
Over 1,000 visitors attended each of the last two years. “Surprisingly, most of our visitors are not members of our Church,” Barb says. “Every year, we get questions about what we do and do not believe. So many people don’t understand that we believe in Christ. We have a chance to point out that Christ is the centre of our religion and the name of the Church. Many visitors ask for or accept the offer of a tour of the building or they wander by themselves.”
“Our goal here is two-fold,” Nancy Watson says. “First, to get people in the community to know where the church is [our building is a little bit hidden, not on a main street], and second, to tell people that we believe in Christ. We purposely don’t proselyte; we let the Spirit speak for us.” Three different rooms offer visitors sights and sounds that open the way for the true spirit of Christmas to enter into the heart. The cultural hall has thousands of twinkle lights and stunning hand-painted murals by local artist Dianne Gavilan who just happens to be Barb Watters’ sister-in-law.
Dianne is not the only family member recruited to the effort. The main committee is made up of several families and ward members, including husband and wife teams as well as children. The entire event is put on by about 30 volunteers who spend countless hours of work on the project. Barb’s husband, David and their sons do all the technical and electrical work and her father, Eric, though not a member, fixes food for the people setting up. Tom and Nancy Watson traditionally prepare a “Thanksgiving” dinner for the crew during the setup week that falls on the American Thanksgiving Day.
“Some of the ward’s returned missionaries brought home nativities from countries where they served. Volunteers created our website and donated the cost of service providers, domain registration and server storage. Families in our church community loan us their precious Christmas nativity sets for the event. A few sets that have been given to us from people throughout the community who have visited the exhibit and have really enjoyed it. Families of donors now deceased bring them to us saying that their loved ones would have wanted us to have them. We have had some left on the door step of the Church building after Christmas with notes saying, 'please accept this set, it was my mother's.” Volunteers set up and decorate the tables as well as act as hosts and guides. It takes hours of work to put the event in place. This year, we will start setting up for our November 29th opening on November 18th and work from 9 a.m. till 12 midnight every night until we finish,” Barb says.
In 2013 and 2014, life-size palm trees were created as centre pieces depict the Jerusalem date palms that were prevalent at the time of Christ. This year, more palm trees will be added to the event. One room stops people in their tracks. “It’s completely white. We cover the walls with white sheer fabric and put twinkle lights behind for a sacred effect. People will stop and stay in the doorway because they feel ‘unworthy’ to step in. It’s so quiet and reverent in that room; even the kids don’t run in there,” Barb remarked. “In the Relief Society room, we feature Tabernacle Choir music and light snacks. We have a Christmas tree, chairs and some puzzles and crafts for the children. Many sit there for half an hour or more after viewing the exhibit.”
“Christ loved little children. They are always welcome at the exhibit”. In two special areas, children may touch some of the displays. One room contains a life-size stable with dress-up clothes that the children can try on and pose with the manger and stable animals.
Admission is free and no contributions are accepted—this is a gift to the community.”
The community’s response attests to the spiritual effect. The guest book records the feelings, “Wonderful exhibit! This will be our family tradition every year!” “Thank you so much for this fantastic display!” These sentiments make it all worth the effort. “Every year, I have people come up to me who don’t even know who I am and give me a hug”, Barb says. “And with tears in their eyes say, ‘You have brought me back to what Christmas really is.' People who have come every year for last nine years say it’s their way to start the season with Christ.”
This year’s event runs from Sunday, November 29 through to Sunday, December 6, 2015. Everyone is welcome to come enjoy an inspiring evening of Christmas music and the beauty of these diverse images of Joseph, Mary and Jesus, with the magi, angels, shepherds and animals. If you cannot get to Sidney personally, you can visit the website at nativityexibit-sidneybc.org. It’s an act of love offered with pure hearts and a lot of work and love. They don’t do it for profit, glory or notoriety. It’s their gift to the community.