Albuquerque, N.M. – When Kris Steel first moved to Albuquerque in 1999, she wanted to get to know her neighbors better. Although she reached out to them in a variety of ways, in 2004 she decided to host a nativity display in her home for residents of her immediate area in the Northeast Heights. So she invited these neighbors to display their nativities along with her own.
As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Steel and her husband worked hard to prepare for the neighborhood nativity event. Parents of five children, they cleared out their living room and put all the furniture on the back patio. Then they brought in rectangular tables where local residents could set up their displays.
They also prepared festive music, a variety of holiday refreshments and favors for all participants. Steel and some of her children spent hours preparing 120 small babes in a manger to give to neighbors who attended.
This first event was well attended and successful. Some of their neighbors who wanted to participate, but didn’t own a nativity, purchased a nativity just for the display. The holiday nativity event became an annual neighborhood tradition.
With time, however, the nativity celebration grew; it expanded from one day to two days and eventually moved to a larger location, an LDS Church building. It involved more participants and therefore required more planning and coordination. Through the years, Kris Steel became the “go-to” person for hosting such an activity, which she had done for over 13 years.
So when LDS leader, Elder Maxsimo C. Torres, Area Seventy of the North American Southwest Area, encouraged church leaders in Albuquerque to host a nativity event for the community, they in turn asked Steel to organize the celebration. The purpose was to get to know members of the community better and to honor the birth of Jesus Christ together.
The “Celebration of the Nativity” took place on Dec. 7-9 at the LDS chapel on Montaño Rd. It began with a VIP Open House on Dec. 7 which local community leaders attended. Then on Dec. 8-9, it was open to the public. An estimated 2,225 community members participated in this inaugural event.
There were a number of community leaders in attendance at the VIP Open House, and the Roman Catholic Church was well represented. Some of the dignitaries included Archbishop John C. Wester, Catholic Charities CEO Jim Gannon and his wife Mary, as well as Dolores Nunez and Kathy Freeze, also from Catholic Charities. These Catholic leaders, who had collaborated with LDS Church leaders on refugee programs, came together at this event to share their common worship of Jesus Christ.
There were many other community dignitaries at the VIP Open House, including Army Chaplain Alan Savage, who gave the invocation; Mary Mazza-Andersen, District Executive for the Boy Scouts of America; and Rio Rancho Chief of Police Stewart Steele. Also, LDS Elder Kevin W. Pearson of the Seventy and his wife, who were visiting from Salt Lake City, came to view the nativity displays later in the week.
The celebration included more than 700 nativities from all over the world that were made of a wide variety of materials, such as wood, fabric, clay, glass, paper, ceramic, etc. Some were small enough to fit in your hand and some too large to hold at all. Some were one piece, such as a Madonna and child made of olive wood, and others included multiple parts, such as an entire Bethlehem village.
In addition to hundreds of nativities, musicians and performers from the community provided musical numbers. Duke City Sound, a local multi-denominational men’s a cappella choir sang at the VIP event. Other groups that performed included the First United Methodist Church Chancel Choir, Matunda Ya Yesu African Refugee Youth Choir, St. Jude Thaddeus Youth Choir, LDS Institute of Religion Choir (consisting of students associated with the University of New Mexico and Central New Mexico Community College), and the children’s choir, Come Sing With Me.
To further celebrate the birth of the Savior in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago, a life-size manger scene was set up. Visitors could choose from an array of props and clothes to dress up, become part of a living nativity, and take photos.
Finally, to engage in the spirit of the season of giving, a service project enabled community visitors to write messages of hope and encouragement to dialysis, general hospital, oncology (cancer) and pediatric patients. Over 453 handwritten cards were prepared for delivery during the three-day nativity celebration.
To organize an event of this magnitude required many hours of planning and the dedicated effort of numerous volunteers. It is estimated that 886 man hours were given during the week of the celebration alone. Steel expressed sincere appreciation to all those who served in this event and was particularly grateful for her assistant Lindsey Hemmert and her own husband Chez Steel.
In a short talk given at the VIP event, Robert D. Saxton, President of the Albuquerque North Stake of the LDS Church, said that the nativity is one of the greatest symbols of the season. Each nativity is unique, each has a story to tell, and some were made with great care and effort. His own mother worked to complete one of the nativities his family put on display and it symbolized her love and devotion to the Savior.
Elder Maxsimo C. Torres explained further at the VIP program, “There is not a Bethlehem without a Gethsemane.” Christians throughout the world celebrate not only the birth of Jesus but also remember the extraordinary gift of his atonement.
This celebration, with the nativities, music, participation in a living nativity scene, and service project, helped thousands of visitors from the community, including children and adults, experience the wonder of the birth of the Savior and to be reminded of the real purpose of Christmas.