PITTSBURG, Kan. — They’ve come from around the globe.

More than 400 nativity scenes — one with pieces as small as a half-inch — will be on display at Pittsburg’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints next Friday and Saturday, Dec. 7.

Best yet, the Nativity Festival is free to the public — a gift from the church’s congregation to area residents. Donations won’t be accepted.

“All we ask is that people let their friends to come in and enjoy themselves,” said festival coordinator Gayla Mendenhall.

The various nativity scenes — one from Peru, another from Mexico — were lent to the church for display by area residents. A sizable chunk of the collection, however, is owned by Mendenhall and fellow church member Holly Maxwell. Between the two of them, they own 180 nativity displays, with many of them to be on display next week.

Nativity scenes vary by culture, said Mendenhall. For example, a display from Peru showcases far more vibrant colors, really drawing the eye, while ones originating from the United States showcase more subdued colors.

But color isn’t the primary distinction between the various displays. Far from it. One of the most interesting nativities on display is a Fontanini Nativity with figures portrayed as dogs. It hails from Italy, and the pieces are richly detailed and hand-painted in an old-world palette.

“I love this one,” Maxwell said. “I’ve never seen one with dogs.”

One display that’s sure to draw gasps from onlookers is a Nutcracker-themed nativity. Sitting on a nearby table is another one made from corn husks. A third was created from slivers of stained glass. A fourth from beeswax.

“That’s what we love about this festival,” Mendenhall said. “There is always going to be something available that will really pique (someone’s) interest.”

Historically, St. Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223 at Greccio, Italy, in the age-old attempt to place the emphasis of Christmas upon the worship of Christ rather than upon secular materialism and gift-giving. The nativity scene, staged in a cave near Greccio, was a living one with humans and animals cast in the Biblical roles. Pope Honorius III is reported to have given his blessing to the exhibit. Over the centuries, as statues replaced human and animal participants, the nativity scene became popular in displays, through miniatures or on plates, cups, cards, etc.

The Nativity Festival is in its fourth year. During its first year, 120 nativity scenes were displayed. Next weekend, they hope to draw 500-plus people to view the nativities in the church’s sanctuary room.

Sometimes, onlookers can become quite emotional when viewing them.

“We had one lady last year who had some loss in her family, and she came and sat all day here … just because the spirit was so strong,” Mendenhall said. “It ... gives you something to think about (of) what the nativity scenes mean to you and getting to enjoy that Christmas spirit for what it is and not the gift-giving.”

Festival hours are from 5 to 9 p.m. on Friday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday at the church at 1507 S. Rouse St. in Pittsburg.

There will be an activity room available where children can make crafts and play with toy nativity scenes. Cider and cookies will also be available to visitors.

But it’s the look of “pure joy” they see on the faces of first-time visitors that makes all the hard work pay off in the end, they both said.

For more information, call Mendenhall at 620-704-2891.

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