There are plenty of secular harbingers for the holiday season in Knoxville. Not all of them were able to make an appearance this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. But Knoxvillians have long counted on one religious tableau downtown to remind them that Christmas is approaching, and it did not disappoint.
For the 25th year, the First Baptist Church Nativity scene went up the day after Thanksgiving. The team was “a couple under” the number of volunteers needed to make the operation its most efficient, says deacon Jim Bailey, but the group erected the statues of the Holy Family, angels, shepherds and sheep in about three hours.
Everyone was masked – except during coffee breaks – and as socially distant as possible while jointly lifting the statues.
Every year downtown workers, residents and guests stop at the church at 510 W. Main St. to admire the display and take pictures. Bailey hopes that they continue that tradition, even though the Nativity is a little bit different this time.
“We did not put the Kings up this year,” he says.
It’s traditional for Nativity scenes – outdoor and indoor – to have a grouping composed of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, shepherds, angels and the Three Wise Men. However, ministers and scholars have determined that the “three kings” who’ve come from “afar” did not arrive until some time after Jesus’ birth.
After hearing this pointed out years ago by a visiting preacher, Bailey started discussing with ministerial staff and deacons the possibility of banishing the kings.
“When this came up this year, I had already prepped the groundwork,” he says.
Bailey also had a practical motive: The figures needed some repair work.
And then there was Clyde.
“We call the camel Clyde,” says Bailey, a nod to a Ray Stevens novelty hit from the 1960s. “He is a handful. It sometimes takes five to lift him up on top. It’s a more practical matter not to put the kings up because then we don’t have to put the camel up.”
Assembling the Nativity is never an easy job.
“The thing that you learn real quick with that Nativity is, it’s extremely heavy – some of the pieces, not everything,” says Bailey, who has evolved into a Nativity team leader since volunteering in the early years of the scene’s installation.
“As you get a little bit older, things don’t move quite as well, and there’s not enough Bufferin or Tylenol to take care of the aches and pains the next day.”
He says the process is easier when there’s a mixed-age group of church members helping out, but unfortunately some of the usual younger people weren’t available this year.
“You don’t have to be skillful or anything, you just have to have a lot of back power,” Bailey says.
Over time, dozens of men – and some women – have helped to raise the Nativity on the front steps of the 96-year-old church building. The grouping was made by Nashville artist Alan LeQuire, famed for his Athena statue at Nashville’s Parthenon, and donated in 1996 by a couple who at the time were members of the church.
While the figures are beautiful, some of the pieces are fragile, and they have to be handled carefully. Rain, ice and cold temperatures have also taken a toll. Bailey is hoping the church will be able to work repairs for the Nativity into next year’s budget.
Betsy Pickle is a freelance writer and editor.