Take a drive down Old West Point Road in western Lowndes County this Christmas, and chances are you’ll slow down for a good look, too. It’s a common occurrence in front of Bob and Jane Crawford’s home, for theirs is no typical nativity scene. Life-size and daily on the move, the figures tell an unfolding story.
About four years ago, Jane, a stained glass artist, and Bob, an electronics technician, decided they wanted to put up a creche but could find none in any store or online that seemed quite what they hoped for.
“We were looking for something different,” Jane mumbled, around safety pins clenched between her teeth. Busy outfitting a wise man making his debut this year, she draped, pinned and tucked in her temporary outdoor studio, her front porch. She stood back to evaluate. “That’s not bad, not bad; I like it — just don’t look too close,” she smiled. She and her husband share a well-developed sense of humor — a useful asset in the trial-and-error process of turning rebar, chicken wire, tomato trellis, swim noodles, grocery bags and pantyhose into representations of the holy family.
The ongoing project has inspired a lot of experimentation. Early prototypes began with PVC pipe cemented in buckets, a weighty and unstable affair. Then Bob came up with the idea of forming basic “skeletons” from rebar in his shop.
“We started taking measurements, seeing how long our backs are, ratios, things like that,” he explained. Bob is the mechanical brains of the operation; Jane has free artistic rein.
“Bob does all the wiring and makes sure I don’t electrocute myself or that we start a fire. He lets me dress them and move them around,” she said. “He’s a very big part of it, with permanent burns on his arm from rebar to prove it.”
Surfboards and bubble wrap
A succession of materials have “fleshed out” the forms in the past, including foam surfboards and bubble wrap. But a big season-end sale on foam swimming pool noodles one year triggered a “eureka” moment. Jane hit the discount stores, buying up all she could.
“That first year, everybody was kind of gaunt,” she grinned. “But the noodles were perfect for putting around arms and legs, to give a roundness.” Hobby store styrofoam heads covered with flesh-colored plastic bags, pantyhose and wigs top the forms. Mittens stuffed with whatever’s available simulate hands. Wardrobes are created from a mountain of fabrics Jane accumulates throughout the year.
“And safety pins, lots and lots of safety pins and tape,” she noted. “There’s no real formula. We just try to make it a little better each year.”
The Crawford’s scene began in 2011 with a rudimentary stable and Mary, Joseph and the Christ child. It has since expanded with a shepherd, shepherd boy, sheep and a “2.0 version” of the stable. And, this year, a donkey and as many of the wise men as can be finished join the tableau. “The camel and angels are far, far off,” Jane laughed. “In fact, we may never see them!”
As Advent begins each Christmas season, the stable near the road is empty. Mary and Joseph can be seen in the far distance, spotlighted. As the days progress, the couple moves gradually closer to the rustic structure. Shepherds with sheep make their way to the site, building a campfire to warm themselves. A star, made by Jane of stained glass, shines above the humble shelter. Passersby — especially children — eagerly anticipate the evolving scene.
“They put so much work into it,” said a nearby neighbor, Harold Dobbs. His wife, Sally, added, “We can’t wait for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren who are coming to visit to see it.”
Jane does her best to move some figure every day, unless weather prevents it. “We have so many people who go back and forth every day — I like for them to wonder what’s going on next,” she smiled.
Come Christmas Eve, Mary and Joseph reach the stable after their long journey and welcome Jesus’ birth. Movement among the figures, after that, quietens. The mood is peaceful.
What is most special to the Crawfords about the nativity?
“Just serving Christ,” Bob responded without hesitation. “It’s our way to mission.” The purpose is not to bring attention to themselves, Jane stressed.
She recalled the first Christmas they put the holy family and the stable out. After returning from the Christmas Eve service at their church, Covenant Presbyterian, they noticed cars slowing down to view the couple at the manger, with the babe. The feeling was reverent.
“It was so cold, but we opened the front door and sat inside with the lights off and just watched. … It was one of our nicest Christmases ever.”
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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