‘Christmas in the Holy Land’: a diorama 43 years in the making

Elaborate nativity scene unveiled at Edina church

Elaborate nativity scene unveiled at Edina church

Nativity scenes are a staple of the Christmas holiday season depicting the birth of Jesus. You have probably seen many of them over the years, but you’ve likely never seen one like the Christmas Holy Land Diorama at the Church of St. Patrick in Edina.

“I wanted all these characters that are in the Gospel stories to come alive, along with just ordinary people,” says Fr. Allen Kuss, pastor of St. Patrick’s and the co-creator of an amazing exhibit to be unveiled to parishioners during Masses this weekend.

It’s more than a Nativity scene, although there is a stable with Mary, Joseph and Jesus not far from an inn where there was no room for them. Kuss wanted to show life in the broader Holy Land on the day of the birth of Jesus. It was a momentous historical event, but one that was largely unknown to most ordinary people in and around Bethlehem on that day.

“And for me the question is always…how did that change them? Did it change them at all? Did they even know? So it’s great to project my imagination onto the characters,” Kuss says.

It’s a project that began formulating in his mind 43 years ago when he was in seminary in Italy. He couldn’t come home for Christmas in 1980 so he decided to buy some Nativity figures from Fontanini made in Italy. His collection continued to grow through the years until he eventually had the idea of including them in a large exhibit. He got the idea from visiting various churches in Italy in the 1980s.

“One of the things they did at that time, I believe they still do, was go to the various churches on a Sunday on the weekend, you know, have a coffee, go to one church see what their decorations are and so on and so forth. I wanted to do this in a church where I serve. So that was 1980,” Kuss says.

It took until 2023 to make the dream a reality with the help of illustrator and designer Don Keller.

“Together we made sketches and ideas,” Keller says.

They had hundreds of figurines but had to brainstorm how best to display them.

“We didn’t start with a vision,” Keller says. “We started with boxes (of figurines). What are we going to do with them?”

They decided on what Kuss calls a “Christmas Holy Land Diorama.” It’s 20 feet in diameter and includes 650 figurines, more than 700 feet of electrical wiring and 1,200 miniature LED lights to bring it all to life in vibrant color.

Keller took great care to create authentic landscapes of the Holy Land from hillsides and desert to water and farmland.

“I create this texture,” he says of the topography. “Import images on my computer and manipulate it until it’s where I want it and make a print of it. Soak it in water and apply it to the underlying shape.”

Kuss is grateful for Keller’s ingenuity and artistic ability.

“If I had been doing this on my own I would probably have collected shoe boxes, stacked ’em, put some cloth on top and said this all you’re getting because this is all I can do,” he says with a smile.

Both men say beyond the “wow factor” of their creation, they hope it also gives those who view it a chance to focus on the true meaning of Christmas Day.

“Just to bring it to life,” Kuss says. “To enliven the imagination to help prepare and to meditate upon those times and what does it mean today. The center of all this is a message of the angels and the coming of the savior. Goodwill to men and women. Peace on earth. Give praise and glory to God.”

Keller says people get so busy shopping and celebrating during the holiday season they lose focus on the origins of the holiday. In fairness, he says people not far from where Jesus was born were busy themselves that day and unaware of what was happening.

“We are busy, busy, busy out shopping, doing things. And these people were a thousand feet away from the stable. They had no idea what was going on,” he says. “They too were busy, busy, busy. That’s the way some of us are today, too. We don’t know what Christmas is all about. So hopefully, in a very subtle way, this will make us think about it a little more.”

Although the diorama includes a Nativity scene, it’s not at the center of the display for a reason.

“The Nativity is not front and center deliberately because it happened in a small village of Bethlehem on the side,” Kuss says. “And I wanted to express by moving it to where it is, people are still looking. People are still searching for truth, for oneness with God. So you have to look.”

The Christmas Holy Land Diorama will be unveiled to parishioners at St. Patrick’s at Masses this weekend. The exhibit will even have three iPads where visitors can click on the numbers associated with each figurine and read more about what they were doing the day Jesus was born.

Fr. Kuss has invited neighboring churches of all denominations to visit.