Making the season bright

Nativity scenes, Christmas villages a holiday passion for some

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It’s an unwritten rule of the Christmas season: Decoration is required.

Unless you have a member of the footie pajama crowd in your household, you can usually skate through the buildup to Easter without putting a single image of a colorful egg or Peter Cottontail in your abode. The same goes for the Fourth of July. If you skip the images of turkey or pilgrims before Thanksgiving, no harm done.

But even the least house-proud among us will usually venture into the basement and drag out the artificial tree or blow the dust off a couple of wreaths when Dec. 25 draws closer.

There are some folks, though, who put a good deal more forethought into their holiday decorating chores. Take, for instance, Earl and Jane Phillis of Mt. Pleasant Township.

Their sunroom has been transformed into a sprawling Christmas village with 311 different collectible buildings, many from the Dickens Village Collection that Jane has acquired at an assortment of auctions and sales over the last several years. They are arrayed on a series of three platforms that Earl constructed and overlaid with Styrofoam and a cotton blanket. At night, many of the figurines are illuminated, making all the lights and color visible to vehicles passing by on Cherry Valley Road.

The Phillises have previously filled the room with Nativity sets and ceramic trees, but decided to take the space in a different direction this year. “I love decorating,” Jane explained while pointing out some of the different facets of the village she and her husband crafted. “We decorate for all the holidays, though not to this extent.”

Just about every conceivable structure is represented in the holiday village, from a lighthouse and library to a tea shop, theater and train station.

“I like to sit out here and look at them all,” Jane said.

And sometimes the neighbors are allowed in for a glimpse of the village. Their thoughts?

“They’re shocked,” she said.

Though the Phillises have switched around their seasonal fare, the familiar image of the Christ child surrounded by Joseph, Mary and the Three Wise Men were fixtures in the California home of Norman and Judy Hunt. During his tenure as a minister at California’s United Christian Church, Norman and his wife were given the sets at the holiday season and displayed them proudly in their residence.

By the time Norman retired from the ministry they had accumulated somewhere around 120. He first collected them as a boy, and revived the habit in the 1980s . As he told the Observer-Reporter in 1998, “I have people who travel and pick them up for me. I just look for them everywhere I go.”

The Hunts have since opted to downsize and donated their collection to the First Christian Church on East Beau Street in East Washington. About 120 of the Nativity sets are now on display there, contained within freshly-built wooden cabinets in the church’s sanctuary.

The first manger scene ever is believed to date to 1223 and was the brainchild of St. Francis of Assisi. He had visited the site believed to have been where Christ was born, and decided that creating manger scenes in more humble settings would help promote worship and reverence. The image of the manger, animals, wise men and a star shining above it is one of the most recognizable in the world.

Most Nativity scenes have familiar elements, but the Hunts’ collection showcases the sheer variety the sets can take and how an archetypal image can be adopted for different cultures and societies. There is one made of straw, others made of ceramic or wood. One set, from Ireland, makes the principals of the Nativity scene look like the statues of Easter Island, and another presents them in the form of Russian nesting dolls. One set is crocheted, another is carved from candles while another depicts the Nativity scene on the side of a bell.

The Nativity sets will be a permanent part of the sanctuary at First Christian Church after the holiday season ends, said the Rev. Stephen Smythers, the church’s pastor.

“Every Sunday we have people go up and look at them,” he explained. “They like all the different types and different imagery.”

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