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.
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.
“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.
“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.