For more than four decades, it wasn't Christmas in Wadena until the city's big plaster Nativity set came out of storage and went on display in a downtown park.
Until this year, when the threat of a lawsuit prompted the city to turn over custody of the crèche to a group of local ministers, who moved it out of the public park and onto private property.
It might have been a sound legal move, but it left an empty spot in the park — and in people's hearts.
"At first, it was looking like a pretty sad Christmas," said Wadena Mayor George Deiss, who lost sleep over the council's November vote to sell the Nativity set. He woke up to a flood of angry calls from people accusing him of "tearing the Nativity down." But within days, Nativities began to pop up everywhere around Wadena. In shop windows. In front yards. And online, where the Wadena Nativity Display Facebook group boasts page after page of Nativities set up not just in Wadena, but around the nation.
"After the [City Council's] decision, people were upset," Dani Sworski, who launched the Facebook group, explained in an e-mail. So she and her neighbors decided: "Let's shower the town with Nativity scenes, let's share our faith!"
No one has an exact head count, but holy families are starting to outnumber the 4,000 residents of this central Minnesota railroad town, where oil trains rumble through downtown every 10 minutes or so. Blocks away, Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus — in his formerly city-owned wooden manger — smile under the holiday lights from their new home. The display, sold to the Wadena Ministerial Association for $25, now rests on the lawn of the old hospital on the main road through town.
Downtown Wadena is a hub of Nativity activity: There are four sets in the windows of the Ben Franklin Crafts store; an inflatable set, complete with inflatable sheep, in the cyber cafe across the street; one painted in the window of the Pizza Ranch; three at the Boondocks Café, and two at the local bookstore, An Open Book. "The whole community has come out to support this," said bookstore owner Gillette Kempf, who also sits on the City Council and cast one of the unanimous — if reluctant — votes to sell the city Nativity scene.
"It's an expression of who we are as a community and what we believe. We believe in the Nativity."
Instead of a War on Christmas, Wadena got a show of Christmas spirit that has attracted the attention of national news outlets. And that's just fine with everyone involved — including the group that first raised the civil liberties complaint to the city in the first place.
A hundred, or a thousand, Nativity sets on private property are just fine with members of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation.
But the group did have a big problem with a local government owning religious icons and displaying them on public property.
"I think their response has been perfectly fine," said Patrick Elliott, a staff attorney for Freedom From Religion.
The group's concern has never been about expressions of faith — just as long as it's not an expression from government.
Meanwhile, back at the park
The Nativity's old home in Burlington Northern Park didn't stay vacant for long. A large inflatable set, accompanied by an inflatable Santa Claus, has taken up residence in the park's bandstand.
The display was the brainchild of Brady Folkestad, who no longer lives in Wadena but studied his hometown's bylaws and realized that groups could rent the bandstand for the day.
So several dozen residents reserved the bandstand through the holiday. Every morning, someone sets the crèche up.
Every evening, someone takes it down, in compliance with park rules.
"It's been amazing to see the town rally," said Folkestad, whose family supplied the replacement scene.
He consulted with another out-of-town group, the American Center for Law and Justice in Washington, D.C., to ensure the display wouldn't land the town in more legal trouble.
Wadena's Christmas displays have brought offers from as far away as the Twin Cities from people eager to donate a Nativity set to anyone who wants one. Mayor Deiss, who has "eight or nine" of them on display at his own home now, estimates at least a thousand sets have sprung up.
"I'm really proud of my town," he said. "I'm hoping we lit a little spark and the rest of the nation will catch on."