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Nativity scene placed on courthouse lawn for many years has a new home

By Jim Barnes,

Less than three blocks from the Loudoun County Courthouse — but far removed from the uproar that has surrounded holiday displays there — a Nativity scene sits on the lawn of Leesburg Presbyterian Church.

A year ago, the same Nativity figures were part of a controversy that brought national attention to Leesburg because of questions over what kind of holiday displays are appropriate on courthouse property. Although the manger scene had been an annual fixture on the courthouse lawn for half a century, in recent years it has been overshadowed by displays set up to protest county officials putting religious displays on public property.

Because Loudoun policy in recent years allowed up to 10 seasonal displays to be placed by groups or individuals, the Nativity scene was joined by an eclectic collection that included a skeleton Santa mounted on a cross and large signs displaying messages from the “Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster” and “Star Wars” Jedi groups.

Hoping to quell the controversy, the Board of Supervisors voted this year to buy holiday decorations, including a Christmas tree, Santa Claus, a menorah and a smaller-scale manger scene depicting the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Groups were no longer allowed to have unattended displays on the courthouse lawn.

It seemed as though the Nativity scene, which Leesburg resident Dennis Welsh had set up for “at least 15 years,” had finally reached the end of its long run.

“Until quite recently, we didn’t know what we were going to do,” Welsh said. “I thought, ‘I’m going to have the year off.’ ”

But the pastor of the church Welsh attends had an idea.

Deborah Dodson Parsons, pastor of Leesburg Presbyterian Church, said the church has a “living Nativity” on its grounds one night a year, in which church members portray Mary, Joseph, shepherds, the three wise men and angels. The display includes live animals. The “stable” that shelters the living Nativity was built weeks before the event.

“I was aware that the beautiful old Nativity scene wasn’t going to be put up again” at the courthouse, Parsons said. “So I said, ‘Why don’t we put it up on our lawn? We have the stable. The proportion may not be right, but let’s try it.’ So, lo and behold, they did it — and it looks fabulous.”

Welsh said that he and his son set up the display on the church lawn and that he was pleased with how it looked.

“I was afraid it would be lost [in the church’s stable], but it really did turn out nice,” he said.

The courthouse Nativity scene, a tradition that goes back more than 60 years, was not always a source of controversy. The Leesburg Chamber of Commerce started the tradition in 1951, partly as a way to entice shoppers to downtown businesses.

The Loudoun Times-Mirror reported on Nov. 1, 1951, that the chamber had announced plans to erect a Nativity scene on the courthouse lawn as part of a community holiday celebration. Two weeks later, the paper reported that “chamber members handy with tools already are engaged in building a stable in which the nativity scene, a feature of the [Christmas] program, will be housed on the courthouse lawn.”

The effort to attract shoppers was apparently successful. On Dec. 20 that year, the Times-Mirror reported that “crowds of county residents were in town, viewing the [Nativity scene] on the post office lawn.” The news account did not explain why the display was set up at the post office rather than the courthouse.

For the rest of the 1950s, the placement of the Nativity scene at the courthouse was front-page news every year in the Times-Mirror, as part of a chamber-led holiday celebration that included lights, decoration contests, visits from Santa and toys for children.

Although it is not clear whether the traditional Nativity scene being displayed at the Presbyterian Church is the original from 1951, Welsh said he thinks it’s at least 50 years old, dating to the “late ’50s or early ’60s.’ ”

Over time, ownership of the Nativity scene passed from the chamber to nonprofit groups. Welsh took over the responsibility for the display when one organization decided it could no longer do so.

“Another fellow and I had been putting it up — he and I and our kids would meet, take it and assemble it,” Welsh said. He continued to set it up at the courthouse every year to try to keep the tradition going.

Parsons is glad the Nativity scene has found a new home at the church.

“We are very pleased that this beautiful, elegantly worn Nativity is gracing the front lawn of the church,” she said. “And it’s nice to have the figurines in the stable. For years, the stable has been empty leading up to the living Nativity.”

She said that she has received many favorable comments from church members and that she has noticed passersby stopping to look at the scene.

“It just seems that this is exactly where it belongs, that it’s found a good home,” Parsons said.

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