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Multitude of mangers: Church displays 250 crches
Mormons celebrate Christmas with nativity displays
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Gainesville city schools Superintendent Steven Ballowe talks about his district's No. 1 priority for 2008: putting money aside for a new elementary school.

GAINESVILLE -- They are made of every material imaginable - glass, metal, wood, ceramic, fabric and coconut shell. One is even alive.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Gainesville is celebrating the holiday season this weekend with a display of some 250 crèches inside the church and an outdoor nativity scene that features singing and live animals.

The collection features a variety of different sizes and types of nativities which were lent by members of the church, including some 175 from one member, Barbara Bailes.

Rosie Kirby, a member of the Riverside Drive church, said the women of the church enjoyed putting together the display. The huge display took some three days to put together. "We've had a lot of fun and it's brought out creativity in a lot of us," she said.

She added that the while the women were creating the displays inside, the men of the church were building the manger for the outdoor nativity. It is complete with live actors and animals and features members of the church singing. A church member also narrates the Christmas story.

"The women of our church really have worked hard," said George Wangemann, a member of the church. He also plays one of the three wise men in the live nativity. "The credit goes to many people." He said members knocked on doors in the neighborhood to welcome them to the event, and he invites the entire community as well.

"This is for the community," he said. "We want the community to come out and enjoy the crèches and the live nativity and every Sunday."

The various nativities are displayed on tables decorated to match the themes or moods of each group of nativities and are lit with soft accent lighting. Some are light-hearted, such as the crèche that recalls a grade-school performance of the Christmas story and two that have an Eskimo theme, complete with igloo. Others are very solemn, featuring words of Scripture emblazoned on each figurine.

There are handmade nativities and many from other countries that have an international look. There is even one tiny crèche that church members laughingly say portends to be the "world's smallest."

Wangemann said he hopes the display dispels some common myths about the Mormon Church. He explained that the Mormon church is Christ-centered, though some people think the church doesn't believe in Jesus. "They think we're not Christians and we hope to dispel that with these crèches and the nativity," he said.

"We believe that the true spirit of Christmas is Jesus Christ. ... Christ is the focus of our entire religion."

The live nativity and the display of 250 nativities can be viewed at the church at 1234 Riverside Drive from 6:30-8:30 tonight. The church members offer hot chocolate, cider and homemade baked goods for visitors. The displays and all the goodies are free.

It is the fourth time the church has produced a live nativity, the first time being 20 years ago, Wangemann said. This marks the second year the church has displayed the nativities, but last year there were only some 30 or so, he said.

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