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Gainesville church to showcase over 1,000 Nativity scenes
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A nativity scene sits tucked underneath a Christmas tree during the Festival of Nativity at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Gainesville on Thursday, December 3, 2015. The festival started out as 30 nativity sets and has grown to more than 950 over the years. - photo by The Times file photo

If you want to see Nativity scenes this season, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Gainesville is the place to go.  

Over the years, the Festival of the Nativity event at the church has evolved from a humble display of 30 Nativity scenes to a walk-through experience featuring about 1,200 creches - the models representing the birth of Jesus - from around the world, some of which are handmade.

“Just about every country in the world is part of our Nativity,” said church member George Wangemann who, in addition to holding a seat on Gainesville City Council, assists his wife Judy, a chairwoman of the event, in organizing and promoting the annual display. “This event will put all who attend in the true spirit of Christmas.”

According to Wangemann, the vast majority of the creches come from church members’ collections, including the Wangemanns’ own which, curated on trips to Bolivia, Chile and Utah, fill their two-car garage.

Attendees can spend a few minutes or a few hours beholding the array of Nativities. The event is set for 6-9 p.m. Dec. 2-Dec. 4 and 3-9 p.m. on Dec. 5. 

Admission is free each night, though if they’d like, guests can bring a canned good or two, which the church is collecting to support the Georgia Mountain Food Bank.

The pandemic trumped the event last year but couldn’t keep it down, but a decline in volunteers  might, as the event returns for its 12th — and possibly final — time, according to Wangemann.

Even with the help of nearly 100 volunteers, the event takes about a month to pull together, Wangemann said, noting that some volunteers aren’t as spry as they were when the first began hosting it and are approaching the point of passing the mantle to someone else.

“We don’t seem to get enough help,” Wangemann said. “It takes a village to set this up. We announced at church last Sunday that this could very well be our last Festival of the Nativity, and there were a lot of sad faces in our congregation.”

Wangemann said the event’s committee will have a clearer idea by the end of next summer as to whether the Festival of the Nativity will have its 13th round in 2022.

According to Wangemann, the timing of this year’s four-night event coincides with the church’s new series, “Light the World with Love.”

“We’re asking everybody to do something good for others — for their neighbors, their family, their community,” he said. “That’s what Christ himself did. We’re just trying to be more like him.”

Festival of the Nativity

When: 6-9 p.m. Dec. 2-Dec. 4 and 3-9 p.m. Dec. 5

Where: 1234 Riverside Drive, Gainesville

How much: Free