Elizabeth Anne (Betsy) Christensen waited until she was sure her parents had gone to sleep in the early morning hours of Christmas morning. She snuck up to the attic where she had hidden a crate she brought home from her study abroad trip to Europe. She used a crowbar to carefully pry the crate open, and she was sure she was going to wake someone despite her best efforts to be quiet.
In the crate, she removed a handcrafted Nativity she had purchased in Switzerland. She discreetly set it up, put a light on it and went to bed. The Nativity was a Christmas surprise for her mother, who didn’t have a Nativity in her house.
“She (Betsy) said that was one of her favorite Christmases because her mom, every time she looked at it, started crying. She liked it so much,” Christensen’s daughter, Jennie Turner-Brazel, said.
That little Swiss creche began Christensen’s collection, which is now over 1,000 creches strong (although Christensen has never focused on the number). It also ultimately led to a 25-year Christmas creche exhibit in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A portion of Christensen's collection is currently on display at the BYU Bookstore in Provo, Utah.
In 1983, while serving as president of her Ann Arbor LDS congregation’s Relief Society, the LDS women’s organization, Christensen needed an idea for a Christmas activity. While on a trip to Kenya with her husband, who was completing a research program, Christensen found a “large and unusual Nativity set made of palm fibers,” according to a letter she once wrote.
This sparked an idea to invite the women in her congregation to participate in a Christmas program centered around the Nativity. That first year there were 67 creches on display, many of them belonging to Christensen. The event was a success, and the following year, she proposed that they host a similar event but this time make it open to the public. The Ann Arbor congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had recently moved into a new building and she thought it could be a positive interfaith activity.
“The neighbors were not all that happy to have the Mormons move there,” Shirley Thornton, a member of the congregation who served as Christensen's co-chair for the last 15 years of the exhibit, recalled. “Betsy just has such a loving, loving heart...and what she wanted to do was, ‘Next year, let’s open it up to the public and then the neighbors can see inside of our building and see what it’s all like here.'”
And so began the Ann Arbor creche exhibit, and many other creche exhibits people attend in LDS churches around the United States have roots in the little Swiss Nativity that Christensen bought as a Christmas gift for her mother.
The concept of the creche exhibit in its early years was simple. It was originally housed exclusively in the meetinghouse’s gym. Over the next 25 years, the exhibit became a tradition in the Ann Arbor community, and it grew to include every room in the building with the exception of the chapel, the bishop’s office and the bathrooms. Different rooms were set up to represent the countries where the creches were from and included other items representative of the different nationalities and cultures.
In addition to Christensen, many other women became collectors, “partly to feed the exhibit as it grew and partly due to our own interest,” said Kerry Johanson, another member of the Ann Arbor LDS congregation at the time who later started the Nativity exhibit at the Washington D.C. Temple Visitors' Center.
Thornton said Christensen’s love for creches was contagious.
“She’s the one that spread this love of creches to many, many people and lots of times because we have grad students who are here for maybe two, maybe four years, they’re very involved in the Nativity. And Betsy loved having everyone share,” Thornton said. “In fact, she was very humble in the fact that she did not want names on the Nativities or whose they were because she knew most of them would have her name on them and she did not want that at all. She did not want the attention. She wanted the attention to be towards the Nativity and about the Nativity and what it was about.”
As the exhibit grew, so did the crowd that came to see it.
“A lot of it was word of mouth and as people visited, they were really just taken by it and its power — its impact. The spirit was always strong. It was a peaceful, quiet, spiritual experience in a Christmas season when so many of us complain that that’s hard to find, and people were very appreciative that it was there,” said Johanson, adding that people from other denominations contributed to the exhibit.
The exhibit was never intended to be a proselyting event. In fact, missionaries were only to come if they were bringing people they were teaching. Instead, Christensen simply wanted it to be a gift for her neighbors. She also believed it was a way to let the community know that Mormons are Christians.
“I remember a person saying, ‘I didn’t think that Mormons would want to have Nativities,’ so you could see the underlying thought was because they didn’t think we were Christians,” Johanson said.
Turner-Brazel remembers her mother often saying, “If you leave a church and they have like over 500 Nativities, they’ll defend (it)."
“And they really do,” Turner-Brazel says.
One of Christensen’s favorite stories from the years of the exhibit came from a woman who was not LDS but who said that one day when she and her son passed the LDS Church, her little boy said, “Mom, that’s where Jesus lives.”
For Christensen, the comment meant the display was what she hoped it would be.
As many of the women who facilitated the exhibit, including Christensen, became older, it called to question whether the exhibit should be brought to an end.
“The community just cried,” Thornton said. “They did not want that at all.”
But when Christensen moved to Orem, Utah, in 2007, it was decided the show could no longer go on.
“We knew that if her Nativities weren’t there, it’s just not the same,” Thornton said.
Now, 10 years later, an exhibit at BYU has given some of Christensen’s favorite Nativities a chance to come out of storage and to be appreciated once again.
Under the direction of Turner-Brazel, a display of Nativities from around the world can be seen in the BYU Bookstore now until Dec. 30. Some of the features of the exhibit are found in glass cases on the first floor, including a Nativity of marionettes and Christensen’s treasured Swiss Nativity. On the lower level of the bookstore, visitors can see other creches from around the world.
A highlight of the exhibit is the Santon creche display, which is made up of French dolls that first caught Christensen’s eye while her husband was on a research sabbatical in Paris from 1985-86.
“As Christmas approached I was thrilled to discover they were all part of the French Santon creche story. Over that year I was able to buy quite a number,” Christensen wrote in a letter in 2002.
The Santon creche story in Ann Arbor continued to evolve when Thornton traveled to France to pick her son up at the conclusion of his LDS mission. Thornton found that rather than setting the Santons up in parade fashion, in France, they were displayed more like a village. The Santon room became a favorite of visitors to the exhibit in Ann Arbor as each figurine had its own story. For example, a grandfather is being guided to the Christ child by his grandson because he has lost his sight, but once he sees the Savior his vision is restored.
Thornton feels confident that Christensen, 87, would approve of the BYU display.
“She would’ve loved it,” Thornton said.