A Cracking Good Time and Christmas Cheer: Celebrating the Reason for the Season

How a nutcracker display, chocolate shop and big-city Nativity scene evoke the true meaning.

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A life-size traditional nutcracker kneels by a manger to pay reverence to the newborn Christ Child.

Unusual? Yes, but not in Ohio.

“Adoring Nutcracker” is part of the display of 170 nutcrackers at the annual Steubenville Nutcracker Village & Advent Market (SteubenvilleNutcrackerVillage.com).

The market, which brings together vendors in typical German-style Christkindlmarket (Christmas market) fashion, was the idea of local businessmen Jerry Barilla of the Old Fort Steuben Project and Mark Nelson, owner of Nelson’s of Steubenville, to revive the ailing downtown. Nelson’s began designing and making the six-feet-tall nutcrackers, which vary in appearance to portray characters from saints to the Magi.

“This is a form of evangelization,” explained Nelson’s daughter Therese, who added, “That first year, the local Trinity Health System sponsored a St. Francis nutcracker.” And the St. Nicholas nutcracker was displayed thanks to Natural Family Planning International. Local businesses sponsored the “Three Kings,” and Franciscan University of Steubenville theologian Scott Hahn and his wife, Kimberly, sponsored the “Mother Teresa” one.

After that first event in 2015, the nutcrackers multiplied, as families, schools, individuals and businesses became sponsors. Joining the long line of nutcrackers were St. Paul, thanks to the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology; St. Junípero Serra from Franciscan University of Steubenville; Pope St. John Paul II, thanks to the Diocese of Steubenville, and St. Padre Pio from Holy Family Catholic Church in Steubenville. The total array includes nutcrackers portraying Scrooge to characters from films to members of the military; there are also firemen, a Swiss Guard, a bride and groom, and Seraphina, the patron saint of disabled people.

The crowds coming to see the nutcrackers are greeted by a huge Advent wreath circling the annual 30-foot-tall Christmas tree located in the center of activity. Following the Advent custom, the wreath’s six-foot-tall candles are lit — lights inside the yellow plastic flame — every weekend.

“A lot of people bring their home Advent wreaths or candles to get them blessed during the first week’s blessing,” Nelson said.

Nearby, a sign explains the meaning of the wreath and its purple and pink candles. “People who are not Catholic are very interested in this tradition,” Nelson said.

Msgr. Gerald Calovini from Holy Family parish blessed the Advent wreath again this year. He said this event is a wonderful tradition because “the nutcracker Advent blessing is for the whole community to come together. We share the belief in Jesus as the Savior of the world. It helps us become more aware of what the season is truly about.”

Last year more than 40,000 people came from all over the United States to see the unique display.

A big draw is the Mother Teresa nutcracker. “She’s little, only four-feet-tall, and a lot of the kids love her,” Nelson said.

Another Catholic tradition is the presence of a St. Nicholas interpreter, who comes every night during the festival, which runs on weekends through Dec. 30. He gives “gold coins and peppermints to the kids and tells them the story of the real St. Nicholas,” explained Nelson. “It’s a tradition we love.”

Through its approach, she said, the Steubenville Nutcracker Village & Advent Market has offered another gift: “​It’s brought hope in the community.”

At Daley Plaza in downtown Chicago, a large outdoor Nativity scene is on display for the 34th year behind the renowned Christkindlmarket Chicago. From the Saturday after Thanksgiving, when a priest blesses the scene and St. George’s Catholic Church members sing carols, through Dec. 29, the Windy City has a public display to showcase the true meaning of Christmas. Ed O’Malley, coordinator of the Chicago Nativity Scene Committee (ChicagoNativityScene.com) that hosts the yearly event, sees visitors and locals alike praying by the Nativity. “The crowds are always great during the day and evening,” O’Malley said. “It’s a simple but very powerful message in the public square. The reason is the birth of Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior. It brings out the message, ‘This is the reason we’re celebrating Christmas.’ We believe when they look at it, the message of that Nativity is one of love and hope.”

Mom-and-pop businesses do their part to celebrate the true spirit of Christmas, too. Finnottes Nut & Chocolate Shop (Finnottes.com) in historic downtown La Crosse, Wisconsin, offers an array of Advent calendars. The different chocolate-filled Advent calendars stand out on the sweet-laden shelves due to the colorful Nativity scenes on the front of each calendar.

“Behind each window is text from the Bible that tells the story of the Nativity from Dec. 1 to 24,” explained Laurie Finn, who owns the sweets shop with husband Frank. Customers “really appreciate the fact we really have a Nativity scene and not just Santa Claus,” she said. “They want to keep it about Christmas and not just about presents and Santa.” Finnottes sells chocolate-filled gold coins traditionally associated with the story of St. Nicholas and his aid to a family in need. Finn is always ready to explain the saintly tale to anyone who doesn’t know it. “I try to tell the story and fill them in about St. Nicholas at any opportunity I can,” she said.

Finn also loves to enlighten children and adults about the religious symbolism of candy canes. The “J” shape can mean “Jesus,” but when upside down, it looks like a shepherd’s crook; Jesus, of course, is the Good Shepherd, and shepherds were the first visitors of the Christ Child on his birthday.

The three red stripes stand for the Trinity, the color white is for purity, and red reflects the blood Jesus shed for our salvation — it’s a “candy catechism.”

“Any opportunity that I can get to share those stories and even in general conversation, I do,” Finn said. “I share, praying for them (customers) and consoling them — this is my mission field. Day in and day out, this is where I minister and take opportunities to share what I can, whenever I’m needed.”

Given these Christmas themes, the 32-year-old Finnottes is building “solid traditions” for parents, grandparents and youngsters alike. As Finn said, “We’re helping people make memories.”

Joseph Pronechen is a

 Register staff writer.