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Old San Ysidro Church hosts Nativity festival

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Every year since 2017, its first at the Historic Old San Ysidro Church in Corrales, the Festival of the Nativities, a display of Nativity sets as colorful as they are widely diverse in style, size, and place of origin, has grown.

This colorful Nativity set from Mexico is characteristic of those in the Festival of the Nativities exhibit on Saturday, Dec. 14, and Sunday, Dec. 15, at the Historic Old San Ysidro Church in Corrales. (Courtesy Corrales Historical Society)

“The first year we had 110 Nativities,” said Ellen Hatala, one of the event’s organizers. “Last year we had 130, and this year we will have about 150. We won’t know for sure until the day people sign in. But as more people find out about it, more want to display.”

This year’s festival, hosted by the Corrales Historical Society, will be from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, and Sunday, Dec. 15.

Hatala said she is surprised at how many people in the area have Nativity sets. But what’s really astonishing is not how many people have Nativity sets but how many Nativity sets some people have.

Among the more whimsical Nativity sets is one featuring characters from the “Peanuts” comic strip. (Courtesy of Corrales Historical Society)

“I talked to someone in the area who has 500,” Hatala said. “And last year a woman donated 75 Nativity sets (to the Corrales Historical Society). They had belonged to her mother. She grew up with some of them.”

Unusual and unique

Nativity sets or scenes depict the birth of Jesus Christ as derived from accounts in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Creation of the first Nativity scene is credited to St. Francis of Assisi, the medieval Italian Catholic friar and preacher. Francis is said to have staged a Nativity scene made up of living humans and animals in a cave in central Italy in 1223. Even all those centuries ago, Francis’ Nativity scene represented his effort to make Christ, rather than materialism and gift giving, the focus of the Christmas season.

Festival of the Nativities includes sets made here in the state, such as this northern New Mexico Nativity by artist Alex Sanchez. (Courtesy of Corrales Historical Society)

In the 800 years since then, devotion to Nativity scenes and the creation of distinctive Nativity sets has spread around the world.

“I met people who had bought a Nativity set in China,” Hatala said. “It had a pagoda and the baby Jesus had Asian features. It is the most unusual one I have seen.”

She said sets displayed at the festival have come from Poland, Russia, Ireland, Mexico and Peru as well as New Mexico and other parts of the United States.

This baby Jesus, circa 1910, has glass eyes, a characteristic of older Nativity sets. (Courtesy of Corrales Historical Society)

Last year, Hatala said, the Festival of the Nativities featured a “one-of-a-kind” Nativity made by Navajo people.

“A gentleman had worked with the Navajo and they made him a Nativity out of clays,” she said. “There is baby Jesus in a manger and two sheep. Another piece has figures that may be Joseph and Mary. There are feather decorations and pieces of turquoise. The manger has pieces of leather.

The pieces in this North American Nativity puzzle set fit together. (Courtesy of Corrales Historical Society)

“The first year we had one in which the Holy Family is in a half of a walnut shell. And we have had a set with a shepherd that is 18 inches high. It is fun to look at all the different ones – even the ones that people say their mom bought at a dime store. Every one is unusual and unique. I always encourage people to display them.”

Beautiful things

Hatala, 69, lives in Rio Rancho, but was born in Michigan and moved with her parents to Redlands in Southern California when she was very young and grew up there. Nativity sets were not a big part of her life when she was a child.

“My parents were not really religious,” she said.

She said she became interested in Nativities more than 10 years ago, when she read about a famous and elaborate 18th-century Nativity scene at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. That set, from Naples, features numerous, lifelike figures that reset the Nativity in 18th-century Italian village life.

“I have worked as an interior designer, and I love beautiful things,” Hatala said. “Beauty is what draws me to Nativities.”

She herself owns just seven Nativities, including one from Germany, one from Poland and one from Russia. The Russian Nativity is in the form of stacking or nesting dolls, five figures – the smaller ones fitting inside those slightly larger.

“The Polish Nativity is a single ornament, about seven inches high, with the Holy Family in the center,” Hatala said.

She recently purchased a set featuring the characters from the “Peanuts” comic strip as figures in the Nativity scene. Snoopy is a drummer boy. Woodstock is keeping the manger warm.

“When I find something cute, I buy it,” Hatala said.

Symbol of hope

Hatala had done Nativity shows in other states and did it in Rio Rancho for a couple of years before approaching the Corrales Historical Society with the idea of sponsoring the festival. CHS, which manages and preserves the Old Church, built as a Catholic Church in 1868, agreed.

Hatala said she feels that Nativity scenes are popular around the world because they symbolize hope.

In the Christian faith, hope, as represented by the birth of Jesus Christ, is at the heart of Christmas, the true meaning of the season.

“The Old Church is the perfect setting for this festival,” Hatala said.

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