December 5, 2014

Sharing the gift of Christmas: Handcrafted Nativity stables reflect stories of the faith for longtime Oldenburg resident

For more than 20 years, Ed Kirschner has been creating Nativity stables and Christmas memories in his small shop in Oldenburg. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

For more than 20 years, Ed Kirschner has been creating Nativity stables and Christmas memories in his small shop in Oldenburg. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

OLDENBURG—Ed Kirschner knows there’s one thing he can count on when people visit his small shop where he creates Nativity stables.

Before long, the visitors will start sharing stories about Christmases from their past, focusing on memories of the Nativity sets that their parents and grandparents displayed through the years.

And while Kirschner prefers listening to other people’s stories, the reality is that he has his own heartwarming memories to share. Like the memories from his childhood when he and his mother would make Nativity scenes from boxes and brown paper.

“It was time we spent together when I was little,” recalls the 75-year-old member of Holy Family Parish in Oldenburg. “My mother had a very strong faith. As far as she was concerned, setting up the Nativity was always a focal point of Christmas.”

His stories also include one of the first wooden Nativity stables he ever made—a Christmas gift for his wife Joyce that he gave her shortly after they were married and moved into their first home.

“We used it for about 10 years as the kids came along,” says the father of four grown children who has been married for 54 years. “It was kind of plain, and I replaced it with a new one. My wife didn’t like that I did that. It had all the memories and traditions attached to it. That’s the way it is for a lot of people. Those traditions and memories are important. She still mentions that one from time to time.”

Then there’s the Christmas story involving Nativity stables that just may be his favorite.

“When one of my grandsons, Alex, was 12, he came over to our house during the summer, and we worked on making them together,” says the grandfather of nine. “He made seven of them. That Christmas, he gave me the first one he ever made. We still put that one up for Christmas every year. He’s almost 21 now. That one will always be special. We had a real good time that summer putting them together. Eventually, we’ll give it back to him when he gets married.”

Sharing the gift of Christmas

Kirschner shares those stories as he sits in The Creche Shop, in the heart of the village of Oldenburg in southeastern Indiana.

Some of his handcrafted Nativity stables are on display in an old ice locker that was once part of a general store. In his small workshop, the tools he uses are always close by: a skill saw, a miter saw, a drill, a screwdriver and a box cutter.

Figurines of the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, the baby Jesus, angels, shepherds and the Three Wise Men watch over him.

“I’ve been doing this for close to 20 years. I started doing it in my garage after I retired young at 54,” says Kirschner, who worked as a buyer for a department store in Cincinnati.

“After I started making some, my wife thought they were good enough that somebody would want them. I didn’t see that, but she talked me into taking about 10 of them to a craft show. They all sold. I was really amazed. It’s something when people like what you do.”

For Kirschner, it’s also special that he gets to do something that reflects his faith.

“Faith is a very important part of my life,” he says. “My wife and I both attend Mass two or three times a week, and on Sunday, of course. Our faith ties into what we think.”

And what he does in making his creations.

“It’s the celebration of Christmas. It’s the anticipation of Christmas,” he says. “I see it every day, and I think about it every day when I’m making them.

“I hope they make a difference for people. For most people, the Nativity scene is a very important part of their Christmas. A lot of people get them for their children and their grandchildren. People give them to couples who are getting married so they can have that tradition.”

Pat Kuntz is one of his loyal customers. One Christmas, she gave each of her six children a Kirschner crèche. And when one of her grandchildren is getting married, she sends the couple to The Creche Shop to choose a Nativity scene as a wedding gift.

“I just love them,” Kuntz says about Kirschner’s Nativity stables. “There’s something different about them, and he’s a very good, honest man.”

Franciscan Father David Kobak admires Kirschner both as an artist and a man of faith.

“His crèches are just beautiful,” says Father Kobak, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Oldenburg. “I like them so much that I got them for everybody in my family and one for myself. How he lives his life and how he creates his work is a huge testament to his faith.”

The stories of Christmas—and the cross

As he carves the Nativity stables by hand, Kirschner tries “to make everything look like it was made of hand-hewn logs.” He also adds a cross to each one of the stables.

“I just thought the cross should be an important part of the Nativity,” he explains. “Without the death and the resurrection, there wouldn’t be much of a reason for the Christmas story. It’s part of the whole narrative.”

Kirschner also strives to make each Nativity stable different—in a way reflecting the variety of people from across the country and around the world who have stopped by his small shop.

Visitors have come from many of the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii. They have also hailed from Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Canada, Mexico, Ireland and Venezuela.

“My wife loves the stories of people who come in, and I really enjoy them, too,” says Kirschner who works year-round in the shop, averaging about 40 to 50 hours a week there. “I feel very blessed at my age that I have something to do, that I enjoy doing it, and I get to meet a lot of people and hear their stories.”

One of Kirschner’s favorite stories involves an elderly man who kept eyeing one of his Nativity stables at a craft fair.

“He kept coming up to my booth, and then he’d go away and come back again,” he recalls. “He did that three or four times. Before the afternoon was over, he said, ‘I want to buy that one.’ He told me his family left Germany when Hitler was coming into power. He remembered having a stable when he was a little boy in Germany, and he said that one reminded him of it. He was close to 80.”

Keeping the tradition alive

Visitors also share their traditions, including how they display the Nativity figures that some of their immigrant parents and grandparents brought with them when they came to America.

Kirschner and his wife have had their own traditions through the years.

“Since we were married, the Nativity has always been a focal point of Christmas for our children and grandchildren,” he says. “The kids would always get around the crèche and have a little parade singing ‘Silent Night’ as they put the baby Jesus into the crèche. That’s the way we always ended Christmas Eve.”

Now, the Christmas Eve celebration is held at the home of one of their sons. And the couple still makes sure to attend midnight Mass on Christmas.

“I’ve been going to it since I was a little boy,” Kirschner says. “It’s a tradition.”

So is remembering the woman who started his love of the Nativity scene.

“My mother’s faith was yearlong,” he says. “It wasn’t just focused on Christmas. She was a very religious woman. Advent and everything associated with the Church was important to her.”

He looks around his shop and adds, “I think she would like that I’m doing this. I think she would be pleased.” †

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