Claysburg woman finds peace in sharing expanded Nativity scene

Sandy Allison stands with a portion of her creche display at the Lower Claar Church of the Brethren in Claysburg. The tableau is laid out on the organ, grand piano and several tables in the church sanctuary.

During this year of pandemic and disruption, many people have written about the forced isolation and uncertainty, and about their longing for deliverance.

Instead of writing about the loneliness, lack of community and confusion, Sandy Allison of Claysburg vastly enlarged her annual creche in an effort to banish the isolation she feels for herself and on behalf of the residents she used to serve in a Morrisons Cove nursing home, substituting for that desolation a scene of Christmas deliverance.

Sandy Allison sat with her husband, Rich, and a reporter in the otherwise empty Lower Claar Church of the Brethren, where she has arranged hundreds of plastic and wooden figures depicting the birth of Christ and the imagined community of Bethlehem and environs 2,000 years ago, with figures arranged on the cloth-covered tops of an organ, a grand piano and five tables.

She was animated while talking about all the pieces, most of them Fontanini figurines, manufactured in Tuscany by a fourth-generation family company, standing alongside wooden pieces made by a craftsman from Maryland and several tiny baskets made by a Russian name Olga.

The tableau includes the basic Nativity scene with Jesus, Mary and Joseph, shepherds and sheep, but also a carpenter’s shop, a jeweler’s stand, a flower shop, a wine press, a watcher to keep birds from eating the grapes, a choir singing, a wheelbarrow with bricks and a weaver at his loom.

Also found among the pieces are a spinning wheel, a spice stand, an olive press powered by a donkey, a well, an egg seller, a glass blower, a garden, a bevy of baby turtles, a baker, a fruit seller, a plowman, a waterfront scene with three ships and a fish market.

The stacks of empty boxes in a back room, from which all the figures came and to which they’ll all return after Christmas, attest to the magnitude of the work.

Each of the Fontanini figures has a story that accompanies it, and Sandy knows most of them.

For her, the effort to display the pieces has been therapeutic.

“I just feel helpless sitting at home,” said Sandy, whom Rich has tried to protect because of prior bouts with pneumonia that make her vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Her own helplessness has attuned her to the helplessness of her former charges in the nursing home.

The really vulnerable ones have been kept in their rooms, she said.

“They don’t see anything but the four walls,” she stated.

“If I do something like this, I could bring some good thoughts back” to such people, she said.

The home always had a Nativity scene at Christmas, Sandy said.

Sandy has been setting up her Nativity scene for five years, but this year, with COVID-19, “she went crazy,” Rich said. “She got a little out of control.”

Both of them are fans of Nativity scenes, especially the elaborate ones, they said.

They lived in Pittsburgh, and Rich, an employee of General Refractories, had an office in the U.S. Steel Tower, which every year had a bigger-than-life creche.

There were also nativity scenes in Europe, where they traveled for Rich’s work and vacations.

The Nativity scene in the Vatican was especially impressive.

Christmas is not “tinsel and lights,” Sandy said.


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