Each December, I put out my collection of nativity sets, and our family enjoys them during the Advent and Christmas seasons. This year, I am not able to host family or friends inside because I had a stem cell transplant in May that makes me very vulnerable to COVID-19.
In an early December Zoom meeting, I heard a pastor describe an outdoor Advent gathering, and that sparked an idea. What if I would display my nativities in the yard and woods behind our house and invite folks to come see them? My husband, Barry, agreed this would be a great way to safely observe this pandemic Advent. We looked at the weather forecast and decided to hold a nativity walk two days later, on Saturday, Dec. 5.
The next day we sent out invitations to our church (Eighth Street Mennonite in Goshen, Ind.), the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary community where I work, our neighbors and other friends. We moved stumps to line the paths and cleared a new path so that visitors could follow a one-way loop through the woods.
I spent Friday evening unpacking my nativity sets and pairing each one with a coordinating scarf or fabric. I made a label for each set describing where or how I got it (purchased from Ten Thousand Villages, collected on trips, or gifts).
Saturday morning, we put out the 80 nativity sets on their fabric bases. We also started campfires in two fire pits in the woods. At 11 a.m., guests started to arrive. For the next five hours, we had a steady stream of visitors, 104 total, all of them wearing masks and observing safe distancing.
It was a joy to watch children’s eyes light up as they discovered the nativity sets in various locations along the path. The adults moved more slowly, reading each label and noting the countries of origin. Many of our visitors told us about their own nativities, especially when they had one similar to one of mine.
The crowd favorite, however, was a unique and new nativity. A couple of weeks earlier, I had asked a friend from church to knit a “pandemic nativity” for me, and I picked it up the day before our nativity walk. As I requested, Barb made the figures wearing tiny knitted face masks!
After so many months of isolation and connecting via computer, it was wonderful to see friends in person. People appreciated the chance to be outside in nature with views of the Elkhart River. One person who attended said later that “the unhurried walk through the nativities with the waterfall in the background and wood fires in the center linger in my mind and heart.”
We decided to do the nativity walk as a way to share the beauty of Christmas and nature with others during this pandemic. The experience ended up being one of the highlights of our year, and something we hope to make a tradition.
Janeen Bertsche Johnson has several roles (campus ministries, admissions, development and alumni relations) at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.