It is not often that a Church-hosted activity boasts five stars on Yelp, but a Christmas Creche exhibit hosted by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does just that. The exhibit is even listed as #5 on Yelp’s top 10 Christmas events in Palo Alto, California.
About 35 years ago, members of the Church in Palo Alto began to notice an interesting tenor spreading throughout in their community: Latter-day Saints don’t believe in Jesus Christ. This drastic misconception sparked conversation among members of the Church in the community about what could be done to clearly communicate their belief in Jesus Christ. Ultimately, Church members determined that rather than retaliate by arguing or disputing this claim, they would extend an invitation to their neighbors to come and worship the Savior of the World together.
“The genesis of the exhibit was that by celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ and testifying of our Savior and inviting all to come to our building, over time people would understand that we indeed do worship and revere and adore Jesus as the Savior of the world,” Marguerite Gong Hancock, co-founder of the Palo Alto creche exhibit says of the impetus of that first creche exhibit.
Hundreds of thousands of visitors have come over the past 35 years and have witnessed firsthand that Jesus Christ is at the center of everything the Church teaches. And in the process, Latter-day Saints and their Christian neighbors alike have learned even more together.
“He’s not just some historical figure but He is a part of Christian life that is shown through community service because this is given side by side with community members and for community members as a gift of love,” Hancock says.
Beginning of a Legacy
Hancock was a young mother when the creche exhibit began. She had just moved from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she had been involved with a creche exhibit founded by Betsy Christensen, a Latter-day Saint who personally owned over 1,000 Christmas creches. Hancock sought to build upon what she had seen Christensen do, but instead of inviting people to bring their creches to display, Hancock and other volunteers created what is essentially a museum each year. Each featured creche has a curated exhibit surrounding it, reflective of the culture in the place the nativity was from. Thousands of creches are offered up each year for use and only 10 percent are selected to be featured.
Hancock and the creche exhibit’s committee began to view the creche exhibit as an opportunity to offer people in the community a platform to share their love for the Savior and for Christmas. Today, more than half of the people involved as exhibitors are not members of our faith.
“You know the amazing thing is it’s a deeply spiritual experience for those who believe in the divinity of Christ. What greater privilege could there be than to think and prepare literally room in the inn, room in your heart, room in a building, room in our part of the community for people to bring their nativity,” Hancock, whose day job these days is as the vice president of innovation and programming at Silicon Valley’s Computer History Museum, says.
And over the years, she has been led to those seeking room to share their faith. Benito Santivanez is such person. A Catholic whose love for nativities began as a little boy watching his mom set up what he calls “just a regular nativity scene,” Santivanez collects and builds incredibly elaborate Christmas villages. In the late 90s after driving by the Church advertising the creche exhibit every week, he decided to stop in. He was introduced to Hancock and inquired as to whether he might be able to share his nativity. She invited him to send pictures and in 2002 he participated with his own exhibit for the first time.
Santivanez initially declined an invitation to participate this year because of a scheduling conflict, but then he called back and as Hancock recalls said, “You know what, I remember the feeling of what it’s like to be there. The lady in the blue van, she helps me bring our things, Karen helps me set up the pieces. …I’m going to find a way to do that.” A week later, he called and said he had figured it out and will again participate this year.
Just as Betsy Christensen’s Ann Arbor creche exhibit inspired the Palo Alto exhibit, Hancock is aware of at least 30 creche exhibits around the country that are fruits of what someone witnessed in Palo Alto.
Certain experiences over the last 35 years are cemented forever in Hancock’s mind.
She recalls a woman from India who had recently become a Christian kneel down and weep upon arriving at a display of nativities pieces from Asia, an area of the world where Christianity has not been the dominant religion.
She remembers a mother insisting that Hancock talk to her young daughter. As they stepped outside and Hancock asked what was going on, the mother said to her daughter, “Open your hands, show her what you have.” The little girl looked up at Hancock with a look of terror on her face. Hancock knelt down and reassured the little girl that everything would be OK. Then the girl slowly opened one hand to reveal a baby Jesus figurine, and then the other unclutched to reveal a second baby Jesus. The mother reprimanded her child for attempting to take something that didn’t belong to her, but Hancock saw the experience in a different light.
“Of course, in the exhibit we have security measures but somehow this little hand had found two little baby Jesuses,” Hancock says with a smile in her voice, remembering what happened next as the little girl said to her mother, “Mommy, we don’t have a baby Jesus at my house, and I wanted Him to come home with me.”
This epitomizes what Hancock hopes the exhibit does for all who visit:
“We hope and pray that ... they will feel this invitation that … we are all His children, that all are invited, all are welcome, all have a place, all of them, He wants us to feel safe, to feel loved, to feel valued.”
One reason the exhibit attracts over 10,000 people each year is due to its ever-changing nature.
“I have to say in 35 years no room has repeated itself ever again. And that’s the beauty of it,” Hancock says.
This year, the exhibit will include a presentation by San Francisco 49ers legend Steve Young, a performance from a gospel choir from Oakland, hands-on experiences for kids, and a painting demonstration by Argentinian artist Jorge Cocco Santángelo.
Cocco is 85 years old and plans to be at the exhibit painting where visitors can watch for five days. The artist will also be bringing 25 original pieces, including three new paintings that will be displayed for the first time as well as the original pieces that were part of the Queen’s Royal Stamp Collection in the UK.
While his paintings are often displayed in many different places throughout the year, Cocco, who is participating in the exhibit for the first time, said he is excited to bring his pieces back to the “real purpose of what we’re celebrating during Christmas, which is the birth of Christ. And not just [to] have a vacation or a festivity.”
The exhibit is far from a vacation for those who carry it out each and every year; it is a labor of love, but one that continues to fulfill the purpose for which it was originally conceived.
“I think the exhibit speaks for itself,” Santivanez says when asked how the exhibit has shown him that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do, in fact, believe in Jesus Christ. “I mean, I don’t know any other Church that does this. …This is a great tradition for the community that we look forward to every Christmas, and I hope the tradition keeps going on.”
This year’s theme for the exhibit is “Come,” and that is what Hancock and all of those involved hope anyone in the area will do.
“When we talk about His invitation to come, which is our theme this year, He invited all to come to Him: Black and White, bond and free, male and female. It wasn’t Church member or not Church member, [Latter-day Saint] or not. ... This is a broader way that God sees us,” Hancock says. “We believe we’re living the first and second commandments—that we are showing the love of God and of His Son in a way of worship and praise and that we are doing that out of love to all people everywhere.”
See the creche exhibit December 3–7, 2022, from 12:30–8:30 p.m. at 3865 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA. Admission is free. Learn more at http://www.christmascreche.org/.