“The Christmas season begins for me when the nativity scene appears on the steps of First Baptist Church” is a praise often heard on the streets of downtown Knoxville.
The church’s tradition of more than 25 years has become a staple of the holiday season for the community, but what exactly goes into making this iconic scene “appear” each year?
A crew of around a dozen church members gathers soon after Thanksgiving to begin the process. First, the fiberglass figures, the wooden replica of the stable and the dozen or so pieces of the heavy plywood platform are removed from the storage area beneath Trentham Hall. Multiple loads with a truck and trailer are required to haul the heavy pieces up steep Walnut Street to the front steps of the church.
Andy Edmonson and Jim Bailey, our resident engineers, are the straw bosses of the installation of the plywood superstructure that fits strategically and precisely on the front steps. They oversee the process by which Strut-1A-East-Left is connected to Slot-1B-East-Right after they have reminded the crew which direction is east and west and which is our left and right. This part of the process involves hundreds of screws, nuts, bolts
When the superstructure is complete, the crew lifts the 14 life-sized figures onto the platform. These are made of a fiberglass resin over a structure of
As the scene comes to life on the church steps, passers-by stop to thank the church and the crew for sharing the Christmas story. “It feels like Christmas now,” they say.
When the spotlight representing the Star of Bethlehem is switched on and the donuts and coffee are gone, the nativity scene is declared complete. The process usually takes between two and three hours, largely dependent on the number of donuts.
The nativity scene is the brainchild of Jim Wright, a local attorney who saw something similar at the Opryland Hotel and commissioned an artist to build it. Church member Tommy Nipper was the mastermind behind the construction of the platforms that have held up well these many years.
Stories connected to the nativity scene are legendary, such as the year the Knoxville Police Department called the church to report that one of our “lost sheep” was found on Gay Street, thanks to some college-age pranksters. It was returned unharmed.
Of course, what goes up must come down. Soon after the first of the year, another crew takes everything apart and hauls the platform and figures back to storage. Most years the upright figures are heavier due to rainwater and/or snow collecting in the cavities of the bases where it freezes. The ice must be chipped out of the bases and the figures dried before they go back on their pallets and are put away for the year.
In addition to keeping the figures nicely painted, church members occasionally must make fiberglass repairs, such as rebuilding a wise man’s broken finger or patching an angel’s trumpet. But that’s another story.