LEWISTON – The little town of Bethlehem, where Jesus was born about 2,000 years ago, comes to life again around this time every year in the home of a local man who remembers when his mother bought the first piece of his Nativity set for 27 cents in 1963.
“This scene is like the world to me,” Nick Costa said last week as he assembled the 27 original pieces handed down by his mother. “Each piece is unique in its own way. I admire other Nativity scenes that I have seen, but I always put mine up in exactly the same way; I display it the way I was taught,” Costa said as he carefully positioned each miniature piece on the fireplace mantle in his living room on Meadowbrook Drive.
“I’ve had the set since I was 5 years old, and I’m putting it up for the 50th consecutive Christmas,” he said. “Not many families I know have had just one set year after year for such a long period. Most have gone through a couple of different ones with pieces getting lost or broken, so they end up replacing the whole set.”
He pointed out that most of the figures in his set are made of plaster – and they were acquired one by one, not as a whole set like the plastic ones being sold today. “The wooden ‘barn’ is the original from 1963, and I’m still using the same straw from the original purchase,” he said.
Among the millions of Nativity scenes on display throughout the world, there certainly are many that are older, more authentic or more historically valuable, but few that have more personal emotional attachment than Costa’s.
“A few pieces have tiny nicks or chips from being handled through the years,” he said, “but I never have repainted or repaired any of them. I’m really proud of them.
“I was born and raised in Niagara Falls when Main Street there was a busy center of commerce, and my mother [appropriately named Mary] shopped at the Jupiter Department Store,” he said. “That’s where she bought the first piece of this set, a ‘wise man’ that still has the original 27-cent price tag attached to its base.”
Like most miniature Nativity sets, it has the customary wise men, angels, shepherds and their animals, the Christ child, his earthly parents Mary and Joseph, the manger, some houses and a church. Costa said he turns on miniature lights in the church and barn on Christmas Eve and leaves them lighted throughout Christmas Day and evening, “even if I am not at home some of that time – it’s a tradition.”
He will dismantle the display on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day.
Costa, a production operator for a chemical company, said he is thinking of having the whole set blessed with holy water from a nearby parish.
Though he displays his set during the traditional Thanksgiving-through-New Year’s holiday season, not everybody in the world believes that Jesus was born on Dec. 25, and many are not sure even of the year of his birth.
Depending on which calendars are used, which Gospels are relied upon and natural cycles in history, many scholars believe Jesus was born between 6 B.C. and 4 B.C., according to the 2003 publication “Jesus Remembered” by James Dunn. Some widen the range to between 7 B.C. and 2 B.C.
A 2003 discussion of “Jesus’ Date of Birth” by Luzius Schneider said, “It is hardly possible that Jesus was born at the end of December because it is too cold in Bethlehem at the end of December to find shepherds with their flocks out in the country during night time.” He added that Coulson Shepherd’s “Jewish Holy Days” reports that “ancient records say that Dec. 25 is the date of conception. … That would make Sept. 29 the [most likely] date of birth of the Son of God.”
Regardless of the uncertainty, Costa and millions like him will be incorporating Nativity sets – and even live re-enactments of Christ’s earliest days – into their Christmas devotions on Dec. 25.
Do you have an idea for religion news in Niagara County? Write to Richard E. Baldwin, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240 or email him at email@example.com