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More than 1,000 Nativity scenes to fill Gainesville church this weekend
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Levi Horrocks helps assemble Nativity sets at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on Monday, Nov. 19, on Riverside Drive. The church is once again hosting a huge display of Nativity scenes in late November and early December. - photo by Nick Bowman

Many people can remember a time during their childhood when they stood in the sanctuary at church and acted out the Christmas story. Some might have even stood outside in a stable — no matter the temperature — as Mary, Joseph, Jesus, a wise man, shepherd or angel while a donkey, camel or sheep grazed nearby.

The Nativity scene, synonymous with Christmas and depicting Jesus’ birth, is likely still a staple in your grandmother’s home, your mother’s home and maybe even your own. But if it’s something you want to see a little more of, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ Festival of the Nativity has you covered.

“We are setting up over 1,000 Nativity sets in the church,” said George Wangemann, the church’s ward mission leader. “We’re going to fill up the gym, we're going to fill up some rooms inside the church, and then we’ve got another room ... I’m expecting between 1,100 and 1,200 Nativity sets at our festival.”

The event at 1234 Riverside Drive in Gainesville is set for 6 to 9 p.m. Nov. 29 through Dec. 1 and 3 to 9 p.m. Dec. 2 is free and open to all.

“Eleven years ago, we had an outdoor Nativity with animals in it and that was kind of the highlight of our Nativity experience at church,” Wangemann said. “And the very first year we had the outdoor nativity, we also had an indoor Nativity, but it only had 30 displays in it. And compared to the number we have today, that’s almost nothing.”

He said people would simply drive through the parking lot and see the live Nativity, but no one came in. Now, the event draws more than 2,500 people into the church to walk through and see each Nativity scene.

“This is going to be a community event, and it’s very family-centered,” Wangemann said. “It’s Christ-centered, and so it brings out the real meaning of Christmas in hopes of getting people to think back as much as they possibly can about what that real meaning is and how it affected them in the past as well as in our current time.”

While the Nativity scenes are used for the church, many of them belong to Wangemann and his wife, Judy. They store them at their home and had to use a 26-foot enclosed truck to transport them to the church. He said it takes about three weeks and 40 people’s help to set everything up.

“That’s going to be the most difficult thing of all the things we do,” Wangemann said. “That’s to set them up in a way that creates a mood or an atmosphere of Christmas.”

Although Wangemann said he and his wife would have been happy with a dozen or so Nativities for themselves, they started collecting for the event and encouraged others to do the same. Because of that, they're able to borrow from other collections to make the event that much bigger.

The festival of the Nativity is used by many as a yearly tradition, and that’s why Wangemann said he likes to see it continue every year. He said it’s not an event “for the purpose of converting anyone to our religion,” but a way to help the community enjoy the Christmas season.

“This is one of our passions,” Wangemann said. “I know many people in the community here, and they are great, great people who we have a great love and respect for. We’re just trying to return something to them.”