In 1987, the Palo Alto Second Ward in the Menlo Park Stake noticed the sentiment in the community that Mormons were not Christians, and they wanted to do something about it. Drawing on a tradition a ward member had experienced in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the Palo Alto Saints decided to create their own display of nativity, or crèche, scenes. Click here to see a sample of some of the most unique nativities displayed at past events.
Now in its 30th year, the Christmas Crèche Exhibit has grown into an annual community holiday tradition, bringing together thousands from a variety of faith backgrounds.
The five-day Christmas Crèche Exhibit continues to beckon visitors to the same Palo Alto ward chapel where it started, but over the years this stunning exhibit has been enlarged from one small room to nine. It boasts a curated rotating collection of about 350 nativity sets from 50 countries, fashioned from varying materials like bronze or beach driftwood and spanning four centuries. There’s even a nativity etched on a semiconductor chip, reflecting the exhibit’s location in the heart of Silicon Valley. Organized by geography, artistic medium, color, or other themes, the rooms in the exhibit feature centerpieces, live music, special talks, marionette shows, crafts, demonstrations by local artists, and other interactive experiences that invite visitors to participate in the story of the Savior’s birth.
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Nativities from Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, and Ghana testify of the birth of the Savior.
“It’s really a very lovingly curated exhibit,” Marguerite Gong Hancock, one of the exhibit chairs, attests. “It now attracts over 10,000 people every year, drawing visitors from more than 50 cities in California. We estimate that well over half the people that come are from the community and members of other faiths—many entering a Mormon church building for the first time.”
A Labor of Christmas Love
Pulling off an event of this size requires many willing hands. By summer of each year, the committee has picked a new theme and chosen which collections to showcase. “We thoughtfully and prayerfully choose an overall theme for the year. It’s usually based on a scripture that helps point people to Christ,” says Hancock.
Artists at the exhibit invite guests to watch them create nativity paintings, carvings, or quilts.
In 2016, for example, the theme was “Peace,” portrayed by origami doves and displays with poppies or olive branches. A majority of those who volunteer their time and talents are the members of the exhibit’s two host stakes: Menlo Park and Los Altos, but they also come from the community. However, Becky Fuchs, the Los Altos co-chair of the display’s organizing committee, shares, “[We] need to recruit about 350 LDS hosts so that we have between one and three people in each room to warmly welcome people and make sure the nativities are safe. Congregations and schools make ornaments that are then featured in the rooms, and we collect food for local food banks. There are many teams that work side by side.”
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The exhibit involves a village of volunteers, contributing time and talents for everything from hospitality and database management to publicity and design. As a final touch, the exhibit features seven concerts and continuous live music in the main hall, which involves another 200 volunteers.
A Uniting of Faith
As the exhibit’s fame has grown, so have the number of people and variety of churches who want to participate. “We have, for example, St. Thomas Episcopal Church and Our Lady of the Rosary that share their nativities they display in their churches,” Hancock shares. “We have people of different faiths, community members, and very talented high school groups that perform concerts here. In addition to LDS musicians, past performers have included a Seventh-day Adventist men’s choir and the San Francisco State University Handbell Choir.”
Throughout the 45 hours of the exhibit, the main hall features musicians on instruments from harps to handbells, adding to the spirit of joy and reverence.
She adds, “It’s grown so that pastors of other churches now invite their congregations to come, and they announce it over their pulpit or put it in their newsletter. We have retired nuns that come as a group in a tour bus, and we have many other leaders of other congregations and faiths that strongly encourage, ‘If you want to feel the Spirit and know about Christ, go and see that exhibit.’”
As these different faith communities unite, a feeling of peace frequently touches those involved. Hancock recalls a unique experience one woman had when she visited the exhibit. “One person, originally from Mexico, came because she was invited by her friend. . . . it seemed like she didn’t have a place to live [or] a place to belong. She came and saw beautiful nativities that had been carved from her own country, [as well as] a painting of the Savior in Africa. She felt so moved that God could answer her prayer, that He was aware of her, and that she had a place of belonging. That was her cue to ask her friend about the Church, and she and her daughter were later baptized.”