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Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, November 18, 2010


It takes a village — along with tape, wire, and creativity — to create a holy family

By Carol DuBrin

Once upon a time, the Altamont Fire Department thought it would be a great idea for the Christmas season to have a money-raising project and add to the village holiday celebration. And so it hit upon a Holiday Lights driving trail through the fairgrounds.

This was about 16 years ago. The fire department set up many colorful light displays including, of course, Santa.

I drove my excited young grandsons through the display one December night. Fun, but I was disappointed to see nothing about the birth of Jesus, to see no actual reason for the Christmas celebration. I was upset.

The following year, I asked the firemen if I could get local churches to sponsor a display, would they include a life-size manger scene? With their OK, I ran an appeal in The Altamont Enterprise for funds and help and I contacted the village churches. The community churches plus several Hilltown ones answered my call.

Dick and Ellen Howie from the Reformed Church joined my committee with individuals from the other sponsors. We went to work right away.

Some of the volunteer men put together a plywood open shed. I went to the Guilderland Costumer looking for a mannequin, we could dress as Mary. We wanted the scene to be as lifelike as possible.

Mannequins are expensive, even second-hand, so with our budget I was able to afford the top half of a female blouse/sweater model. We would end up sitting her on a hay bale and draping that with a blanket on her “lap.”

One of the volunteers made her a lovely pale blue gown.

The baby was my childhood life-size baby doll. Clothed in one of my own baby’s night sacks and wrapped in swaddling clothes “He” was perfect laying in a manger created from a hay-filled old wooden box.

More hay, donated (down through all the years) by George Pratt, a flickering electric lantern and flood lights made a great scene and we were ready for the second Holiday Lights show at the fairgrounds.

And it snowed and snowed and snowed so much that plows could hardly keep up and drivers didn’t want to tackle the blizzard. This was no fund-raiser, rather the reverse. The forces of nature were too much.

The next year, the firemen abandoned the project. Albany picked it up with corporate sponsors and the lights have been an expanding tradition.

Now we had a shed, a baby and Mary and no place to go. We asked the village board if we could place it in the park but we were refused on the basis of no religious sponsorship.

Looking around, we saw the train station, then in private hands with it’s wonderful covered waiting area. We contacted Dave Cowan, the owner, and got his approval.

We had found a new home. With roofed protection, we decided to expand and get Joseph into the scene. No way could we afford a male mannequin but the Costumer had a life-size cardboard George W. Bush cutout!

Stuffing out a rubber mask and adding a nice full beard for The costumer, we had a Joseph. I made him a brown felt robe and banded headpiece.

We added a colorful woolen shawl and a long wooden staff and there was Joseph propped up, watching over Mary and the baby.

He was secured with more hay and wired to the shed to withstand winter winds. Lovely. And there even was a carol sing at the spot.

The following year, our location was given over to Christmas-tree sales and we moved again. Our multiple sponsorship had ended in the blizzard so now we retreated to the front lawn of the Reformed Church.

We (the ever faithful Howies and I.) got more volunteers from our church involved. George’s cardboard figure made it through the Christmas season last year, we went for one more year.

Janet Grondin and her husband, André, became active members of our team and she used her artistic ability to fashion us a wooden banner to top the scene. It proclaimed, “Unto us a child is born.” And I found a very heavy concrete calf to give the stable atmosphere. Lovely.

The shed roof was not impervious to the weather so the following year we had to retire a sagging George W. Bush. André was the manager of Mohawk Mall so we enlisted his aid in locating a viable mannequin and to see if we couldn’t find a whole Mary.

And he did — a very attractive bikini model, which presented a bit of a problem in becoming a chaste Mary, and bits and pieces which we assembled into Joseph.

There was a lady’s torso, head and arms, and a man’s sturdy legs! Laughing hysterically, we cobbed them together for our purposes.

We still had the masks (by the way, that was Ronald Reagan) and beard so the head was easy. Obviously, our his and her parts were not exactly in sinc so they required a good deal of wire and masking tape.

While we were assembling this concoction on the church’s front lawn, passers-by were entranced and little David was heard to tell Daddy Bob that Joseph was a lady!

To celebrate our new scene, we tried putting in sound-recorded Christmas carols — but that experiment failed miserably since the scene was on the on/off cycle of the church’s outside lighting.

Somewhere along the line, we created a manger out of an old sawhorse. Our old shed was collapsing so the men of the church created a much sturdier new one.

And baby Jesus succumbed to the elements and age and was replaced with a one-armed doll from my daughter’s collection; swaddled with just one hand peeping out, he was very satisfactory.

Through all this, George Pratt supplied the hay and Ellen and Dick Howie the push to get it altogether with any number of willing helpers. Sorry, but I’m too old to remember names.

Last year, Christmas 2009, a lot more tape, wire, and safety pins got us through the season but the consistory decided it was time to budget for real artistic, sturdy figures.

So Dick Howie and Pastor Bob Luidens made the trek up to Amsterdam this summer to bring the Holy Family here to their new home.

This Christmas 2010 is their introduction to Altamont. Much less worry but not as laughingly challenging. I hope my red calf will still be there

Our old “family” retired to the transfer station where they have been transferred to their next life.


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