Christmas comes early for me. In fact, it arrives on the first Sunday of Advent.
That’s the day when the tables by all of the entrances to my church are filled with special things to help parishioners prepare for Christmas. There are punch-out Nativity scenes, ideas for Advent-themed crafts, and Advent calendars filled with suggestions for daily family-centered activities. Best of all are the daily scriptural reflections, meditative prayers, essays and poetry collected in The Magnificat Advent Companion, The Word Among Us: Daily Meditations for Advent and The Little Blue Book, the cobalt-covered paperback that encourages people to “spend some quiet time with the Lord” for six minutes a day during the Advent and Christmas seasons. It’s a windfall I anticipate every year.
During my six-minute session on December 13, for example, I learned about the Legend of Joseph’s Staff, in which the carpenter’s favorite walking stick blossomed with flowers, a sign from God that Joseph was chosen to be Mary’s husband.
A legendary local Nativity display might not include a lily-topped staff for Joseph, but it’s a fitting place to spend some quiet time with the Lord.
Each holiday season, State Auto Insurance Companies transforms its downtown Columbus headquarters at the northeast corner of East Broad Street and Washington Avenue into “Christmas Corner,” where the star attraction is its historic life-sized outdoor Nativity.
In 1931, State Auto’s founder, Robert Pein, had the company’s building decorated with blinking lights, topping it with Christmas trees and installing a large electric sign at the front that offered “Christmas Greetings” to Depression-weary Columbus residents. More lights and Christmas trees, joined by a star and four crosses, were added to the display the next year. Then came Santa and his reindeer on the top of the building, followed by an igloo and a 16-foot high church. By 1935, live models acted as shepherds and a soloist performed every half-hour.
The display took a hiatus during World War II; it was then downsized while the company’s headquarters were remodeled and rebuilt. Then, in the mid-1950s, Gordon Keith, an artist who designed and built three-dimensional models for the Army to plan military operations in Europe during World War II, transformed the Nativity scene. Keith was also responsible for other local attractions like the Talking Tree at Lazarus department store and COSI’s original Street of Yesteryear.
Keith created life-size plaster-and-fiberglass statues for the Nativity scene, adding more every year until they stretched across the entire front of the building.
In 1993, his successor, Nancy Elliott, the company’s graphics and printing manager, restored the figures. Originally depicted with bright clothes and fair skin and hair, the hand-painted figures were given darker hair and skin and dressed in more muted colors to make the scene more characteristic of the Middle East at the time of Jesus’ birth.
In 2002, Jo Ann Huntwork took over, adding an angel above the manger and replacing the display’s flat backdrops with three-dimensional pieces that resemble stone. Other local artists have participated by painting murals, mock walls and other backdrops, as well as adding artificial fig and palm trees.
In 2009, the display was moved from a raised area in front of the building to a small park to the east. Now, visitors can walk among dozens of statues as they follow the story of the birth of Jesus. Six scenes recreate the Annunciation, the journey to Bethlehem, the arrivals of the Wise Men and shepherds to the manger in Bethlehem at the birth of Jesus, and the Holy Family’s journey to Egypt. Informative signs present Scripture verses and historical Biblical details. Since 1996, the Baby Jesus has been laid in the manger at 7:00 on Christmas Eve by a Discovery District leader.
The display once had its own low-powered radio station, 103.9 FM, with a 150-foot range that aired Christmas music performed by State Auto employees. The experience is also enhanced by live performances by local choirs and a voice-guided tour that visitors can access on their mobile phones.
State Auto’s Nativity display has become a community fixture. Generations have grown up coming to the display. It was also a highlight of the COTA Christmas Coaches, which provided free shuttle tours of holiday decorations in the Short North, German Village and Downtown from 1996 to 2000. The coaches’ exterior featured a hand-painted holiday scene, while the interior was decorated with lights, bows and garlands. A special seating area for Santa included a glowing fireplace, a Christmas tree and gift-wrapped packages.
This holiday season, the free display at 518 East Broad Street is lighted daily until January 2, 2018. Lighting times are daily from 6:00 to 8:00 a.m. and from 5:00 to 11:30 p.m.; until 12:30 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. It will be lit from 3:00 p.m. Christmas Eve until 8:00 a.m. on Christmas Day.