The difficult job of keeping Christ in Christmas

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The crèche on PCH at Webb Way. An afternoon of caroling, cider and cookies, and a message will take place this Sunday at 3:30 p.m.

The Keep Christ in Christmas project has managed to put up the crèche for the 40th year on PCH, but it’s been a struggle.

By Michelle Logsdon/Special to The Malibu Times

The past few years have proven challenging to the Keep Christ in Christmas project, but supporters of the 40-year-old Malibu tradition are fighting to keep it alive. Every year volunteers set up a life-size nativity scene on the corner of Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) and Webb Way. Each Sunday during Advent local churches sponsor brief ceremonies at the site. Unfortunately, changes in leadership, fundraising issues and storage logistics have strained organizers of the event, causing some concern over its continuation.

When the president of the last two years, Pam James, moved out of the area, Jennifer Schoenberger assumed the lead position.

“It was important to me to get the nativity scene up this year in Malibu,” Schoenberger said. “There was some turnover in the board of directors and one of the fundraisers didn’t happen this year, so we were afraid the scene would not get placed.”

Schoenberger said all the churches in the area pulled together to make sure the tradition did not die out. Rev. Greg Hughes of Malibu Presbyterian Church said the nativity scene is a great reminder for the community and the perfect place for families to gather.

“Sometimes we forget that Christmas is about God’s greatest gift to us,” he said. “It’s not about presents under the Christmas tree, it’s about what happened 2,000 years ago in a manger.”

That’s the message founder Mary Kupper wanted to relay when she started Keep Christ in Christmas in 1963.

“The highway was long and dark and I wanted Malibu to have a bright feeling at Christmas,” she said.

Kupper, who is now 81 years old, was encouraged by the response of local businesspeople and the Chamber of Commerce. “I am proud of the heritage it now has in Malibu. It’s up to the community to keep it going and I think they will.”

The hand-carved, wooden statuettes and the 16-foot x 12-foot x 14-foot structure that protects them have to be stored during the non-holiday season. For the majority of the project’s life, the crèche had been kept at Serra Retreat, then briefly at the Labor Exchange and now at a construction company in Cross Creek.

Although finding a permanent storage home for the nativity scene has been challenging the past few years, it is not the most expensive part of the endeavor. Insuring the objects and setting up the scene each year are the costly activities. Schoenberger said it costs approximately $900 to set up the protective structure that has to be carried in on a tractor-trailer and put in place with a forklift.

Members of the Malibu Optimists Club, under the leadership of Bill Armstrong, have actively participated in the assembly for many years. When the protective structure became unsafe three years ago, they helped pay for a new one as well as refurbishment of the statuettes – a project overseen by Bob Sutton. Armstrong said the group is looking for new volunteers to help manage the crèche in the future.

Kupper believes the tradition will continue for at least another 40 years in Malibu because the community has adopted the nativity scene project as its own. Anyone who questioned the significance of the project became a believer when Serra Retreat burned to the ground years ago Kupper said. The créche was stored in a basement at Serra Retreat. As fate would have it, the créche survived the blaze.

“The Lord had put it there,” Kupper said. “That made a big mark on the community and people said it kept the community together.”

As members of the project look forward to the next 40 years, they have chosen to modify its name. From now on the project will be known as Celebrate Christ in Christmas.

The next event on the Celebrate Christ in Christmas schedule will take place at 3:30 p.m. this Sunday, Dec. 14, at the nativity scene on the corner of PCH and Webb Way. Malibu Presbyterian Church and the First Christian Science Church are co-hosting an afternoon of caroling, cider, cookies and a short message.