Edmonton's traditional large outdoor Nativity scene has been replaced by this small indoor display. Artist Ritchie Velthuis (left) created the display.Photo by Thandi Konguavi/Grandin Media

City Hall removes outdoor Nativity scene

Faith leaders say it's an issue of religious freedom

Faith leaders in Edmonton are disappointed that City Hall has scrapped its outdoor Nativity scene after more than 40 years and replaced it with a smaller art display indoors.

“This is our Christian tradition,” said Chris Chakmakian, a member of the Armenian Holy Apostolic Church in Edmonton. “You cannot abolish it, you cannot eliminate it, and unfortunately our politicians are working to eliminate and abolish it.”

The outdoor display featured life-sized, fibreglass figures housed in a wooden stable, and for years it also included live animals. This year, the city commissioned a new, $2,000 indoor art display to replace it.

Artist Ritchie Veldhuis created the indoor Nativity display.

Created by Edmonton visual artist Ritchie Velthuis, the work features dyed clay sculptures of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, the Three Wise Men, a shepherdess, and two angels. The 115-by-50 centimetre artwork is scheduled to be on display until January 7, when some Eastern Catholics and Orthodox Christians observe Christmas.

City administrators say an outdoor Nativity scene was unfeasible because of construction outside City Hall over the next two years, but they also admit that it may not come back at all.

“It’s not necessarily temporary,” said Tannia Franke, the city’s supervisor of civic events for Sir Winston Churchill Square. “For at least the next two years, this new Nativity will be featured inside City Hall, and then decisions will be made after that what the future may look like.”

The city’s chaplain says the outdoor Nativity scene also raised concerns about promoting Christianity over other faiths.

“It was quite large and so there was some discussion around — moving forward with this pluralistic society — whether it is appropriate to have something so large sitting right outside city hall doors,” said Rev. John Dowds. “And that’s a discussion that we continue to have. We want to be as inclusive as possible.”

Instead, it may have had the opposite effect. Faith leaders in Edmonton wrote to Mayor Don Iveson last month urging the city to bring the outdoor Nativity scene back.

“The Christian community is not asking for exclusive rights to outdoor religious symbolism and we’re not asking for special privileges,” said Julien Hammond, ecumenical officer at the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton.

“It’s really a question here of time-honoured tradition, not only in this city but all around the world. Christian communities put on display in the public square Nativity scenes, just as Jewish communities put up menorahs for Hanukkah and during the festival of Diwali, people put lights out.”

The removal of the outdoor Nativity scene also strikes at the heart of religious freedom, Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith said in a 2016 letter to the mayor also signed by other Edmonton faith leaders.

A life-size outdoor Nativity scene was traditionally displayed in front of City Hall. The tradition, often featuring live animals, is seen here in 1978.Western Catholic Reporter, Dec. 18, 1978

“It is also a freedom that extends to the public square … The outdoor Nativity scene remains an important symbol to us of the City’s support for the Christian community in the midst of the religious pluralism and cultural diversity that mark our city,” Smith said.

“We remain committed to working with the city to restore and develop a public, outdoor Nativity scene that reflects a time-honoured Christmas tradition within our city and around the world.”

Reverend Bev Sesink, Associate Pastor of Calvary Community Church in southeast Edmonton, added his voice to the chorus of Christian leaders urging the city to reconsider.

“It seems just appropriate to make sure that (the Christian faith) is not downplayed or excluded,” he said, “not to the detriment of any other faith group, because I think in a pluralistic society we have to make room for each other, but I think we should respect all faith traditions including the Christian one.”

Iveson was not available for comment, but Coun. Mike Nickel – himself a Lutheran – said he supports the idea of bringing the outdoor Nativity scene back.

Coun. Mike Nickel

“There’s no question in my humble opinion that the state has slowly but surely marginalized a lot of the religious aspects of our society, which is unfortunate. I don’t have a problem with any other religion.”

Chakmakian said he fears the city won’t bring back the outdoor Nativity scene, and that the new, indoor art display may be temporary too. “It is a symbolic gesture, and a couple of years from now they will take it away from there as well.”

City administrators and officials from the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton as well as the Edmonton and District Council of Churches continue to meet to talk about the future of the outdoor Nativity scene.

Churches have even offered to contribute funds to replace the old Nativity figures, which city officials have said were too dilapidated for continued display.

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13 thoughts on “City Hall removes outdoor Nativity scene

  1. Perhaps the Archdiocese should consider trying to acquire the nativity display and prominently feature it at the Basilica!! Problem solved 🙂

  2. Let’s celebrate not annihilate! The birth of Jesus brings/represents joy and peace. That nativity scene was splendid. How very sad that bureaucratic decisions flatten faith expressions.

  3. Preserving Christian traditions is a priceless gift that we can and should give to future generations.

    The Nativity Scene serves as a reminder of the reason for the Christmas season…based in
    giving, sharing, kindness, generosity and wonder. By all means, add other traditions held by new Canadians but do not eliminate a tradition that has been honoured and cherished by a generations of people and speaks to faith in the history of building this city, this province and Canada…..what good is accomplished by throwing away this tradition???

  4. Instead of sanitizing our culture why not celebrate more. Make large displays for all the big cultural holidays. So senseless.

  5. Merry Christmas is the spirit of the season embracing the special time with every Edmontonian celebrating the reason for Christmas. There are a very few months in the year when we can all come together for peace whatever spirit offers for the season. The Christmas nativity scene surely brings Edmontonians to the inner core of Edmonton whatever their Christmas thoughts. The Christmas nativity scene is a much needed aspect in the moments for a very few days. Please, Please consider the awesome Christmas nativity scene in the outdoor area there within the immediate view for Edmontonians. Thank you.

  6. So sad to see yet another Christian tradition go the way of the Dodo bird and our political leaders again bend to political correctness. Are we soon going to be celebrate “December Holiday” as the official name to replace Christmas? Please please remember the Jesus is the reason for the season!

  7. I am so sad to hear of This beautiful Nativity Scene being taken away . I for one want it back. I have talked to many people about this and they all feel the same way. It is a Christian tradition , a very important symbol of our faith and we all look forward to seeing it during this Christmas Season. I know there are many other religious beliefs and I always respect them for what they believe and I want the same consideration back. We want our Nativity Scene back and I will lobby to get it back. I will do my best to get everyone to write in about it and get petitions signed if that is what it’s going to take to have in back in place by next year ……if not this year!

  8. Just another nail in the coffin for Christianity in this City. And according to the write-up, our illustrieous Mayor will not answer any questions put to him regarding this matter, GREAT, your Worship!
    Christians throughout the City are NOT asking for any favours, just time honoured tradition. Hopefully the voters will remember this when the next election rolls around.
    Shame on you Edmonton!!!

  9. Do Not Remove. It represents the reason we have Christmas in the first place. Its part of the history of this country as as a primarily Christian country. We don’t have to remove something/symbols of one faith in order to accept and recognize other religions and communities.

    1. Please do not remove the nativity scene. If you are worried about other’s religious beliefs, why are you not worried about ours as well? We have very little rights as Christians anymore and I don’t see how this is fair. Many of us have respect for other religions and are not offended by their celebrations. Instead, we have chosen to embraced it and learn from it. So please do the same for us. The nativity scene is a very special monument.

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