Except for a lone cow, the stable stands empty in the Nativity scene at Grace Episcopal Church in the Fauquier County town of The Plains.
The creche is unlike those commonly seen in churches and front yards beginning the month before Christmas, typically featuring figures of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus in the stable, often joined by shepherds, angels, wise men and animals.
Instead, the scene is an imaginative, highly detailed, miniature representation of life in the city of Bethlehem. Townspeople are seen going about their daily business of baking bread, weaving fabric and even taking a nap. As the holiday approaches, more figures will be added to the scene to illustrate the Christmas story.
The Nativity scene developed from the imagination of artist Dana Westring, a church member who has been carefully crafting figures and building the landscape for more than a decade.
Westring, 62, of Marshall, created the display in the centuries-old tradition of a Neapolitan creche, featuring a rocky hillside village of homes, shops, bridges and walkways.
“I’ve seen several in Italy, and they oftentimes have them set up under a huge glass box, and they keep them up all year round,” Westring said.
He started the project to provide a setting for several miniature Nativity figures the church already owned. He then began to create his own figures, which he sculpted from a claylike polymer.
“It was an experiment for me in making miniatures,” he said.
Westring created the display to resemble a Middle Eastern village, with palm trees and buildings constructed of stone and straw, rather than the Italian-style villages depicted in some Neapolitan creches. But he didn’t try to duplicate the real city of Bethlehem, he said.
He used rocks and grasses to craft the landscape for the first section of the village, which he displayed on a table. Over the years, as he added characters and built additional sections of the village, mostly from polystyrene and papier-mâché, the creche outgrew the table. Now it is several feet tall and rests on the floor of the church sanctuary.
The creche includes a small wooden plank bridge, torches mounted on walls, dogs and cats roaming the streets, and flickering lights in rooms to imply that “something is going on,” Westring said.
One of the newest additions is a boat with a fisherman at one side of the display. Westring said he intended this as a reference to Jesus’ exhortation to his early disciples to follow him and become “fishers of men.”
Other scenes and characters in the creche foreshadow the life and ministry of Jesus, Westring said. A woman is shown stomping grapes to make wine. A man drinks water from a well, and another quenches his thirst in a wine cellar. A carpenter at work in his shop is a subtle reference to Joseph.
At one end of the display, a woman stands outside, gazing up at the sky, as though anticipating the appearance of the Christmas star.
Westring’s favorite scene is a bakery with bags of flour on the ground, loaves of bread on shelves and a table on which a woman kneads dough. A light indicates that the oven is in use.
Every Sunday during the month leading up to Christmas, Westring adds characters to depict the unfolding Christmas story. Wise men will appear soon, approaching the scene from afar — atop a piano across the sanctuary. Shepherds will also be added, and angels will be suspended above the scene, he said.
“There is a tradition to add Mary and Joseph the last week before Christmas,” Westring said, adding that they would be in place in time for a special service of lessons and carols at the church at 5 p.m. Dec. 18. The baby Jesus will complete the scene on Christmas Eve.
Marcia Markey, who chairs the church’s altar guild, said that the creche is a valuable educational tool and that members of the congregation — particularly the children — look forward to seeing it every year.
“They realize this is the world in which Jesus lived,” Markey said. “It brings the reality of the world in which that child was born — a real child.”