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Personal stories behind Nativity sets enhance exhibit

Church member Emily Thomas shows off one of the more than 100 Nativities on display at First United Methodist Church in Tullahoma, Tenn.
UMNS photos by Terry Bulger.

By Terry Bulger*
Dec. 14, 2007 | TULLAHOMA, Tenn. (UMNS)

The Nativity sets on display range from classic porcelain to paper cut-outs
created by children.

One hundred Nativity scenes, including 3,000 individual pieces, fill three rooms of First United Methodist Church.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, along with three gift-carrying wise men, camels, cows and shepherds, are displayed in a variety of ways. Replicas of the participants in the first Christmas range from classic porcelain figurines to paper cut-outs. Most of them once graced the living rooms of church members.

As beautiful as the displays are, the real reward for visitors comes in hearing the personal stores accompanying them.

Hard times

Jack and Christie Cullpepper are 85 years old. They talk softly about the history of their manger scene. It’s a prized possession and has been part of their life since shortly after getting married in 1944. Jack remembers those were hard times.

"That first year, we had baloney sandwiches for our Christmas dinner, that’s all we had," Jack says. Buying a Nativity scene was out of the question; if they wanted one, Jack would have to make it himself. "I found an empty lettuce crate behind a grocery store and figured I could probably do something with this," he says. "It’s not worth a nickel, but it means everything to us."

"I think it’s a work of art," Christie adds with pride while standing next to her husband. "He knew how much I wanted one, and we didn’t even own tools then, but he went to the neighbor, borrowed some and went to work."

Jack Cullpepper created this Nativity out
of a lettuce box in 1944, when times
were hard and buying a set was out of
the question.

His creation has been their Christmas centerpiece for more than 60 years.

"In a way, we’re amazed it has lasted that long. I’ve had to re-glue it a few times. Once in a while one of the grandkids will kick the rails," Jack says.

"(It) brings back memories of the pleasant times we’ve had at Christmas," Christie adds.

To Iraq and back

A six-inch shed with Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus wouldn’t be worth much at a garage sale, but the story accompanying the simple scene would make it a centerpiece in any collection.

Army Capt. Robbie Sipes spent last Christmas in Iraq. "I remember driving around thinking, ‘I’m thousands of miles from family but really close to where Jesus was born.’"

Sipes grew up attending Sunday school classes at First Church. He had great memories of Christmas as a child and had a special fondness for the child-friendly Nativity scene that was part of his family’s holiday decorations.

During one mail call, thanks to his parents, that same Nativity set arrived at his Iraq barracks. He set the crèche on a footlocker next to his bunk bed, and suddenly December in the desert felt a little like home.

Army Capt. Robbie Sipes displayed this nativity in his barracks during his deployment to Iraq last year.  

"Everyday’s the same there; it doesn’t feel like the holidays," Sipes says, "but having something to remind you that it’s Christmas was so helpful. It lifted my spirits every day just knowing that it was there."

Tullahoma church organizers never expected the display to bring with it such personal stories. Oral histories are now part of the tradition they started in 2003.

"That’s the beauty of this display," says longtime church member Emily Thomas, "it’s a little bit of everything – people sharing their priceless items and others showing off their ones made out of paper."

*Bulger is a television correspondent for WSMV-TV, an NBC affiliate in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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