In Manatee County, Nativity scenes have special meaning to Christian families

Millie and Luis Rodriguez stand with the nativity scene in their front yard.
Millie and Luis Rodriguez stand with the nativity scene in their front yard. ttompkins@bradenton.com

Driving through the streets of Manatee County, you’ll see plenty of them. Nativity scenes, or crèches as they’re also called, are placed on front yards for the holiday season.

Some are blow mold figurines depicting Mary and Joseph kneeling by a sleeping infant, celebrating the birth of Jesus. Others are simple silhouette light displays.

For Christians, these represent the scene of Jesus Christ’s birth. Every year, families around the country make space for one outside of their home as a reminder.

With Christmas upon us, the Bradenton Herald spoke with three local families who shared what the Nativity scene means to them.

Carole and Bert Dillahay

There’s history behind the Nativity scene that sits outside the Dillahay home in Palmetto. In the late 1970s, Carole Dillahay took a ceramics class in West Bradenton and decided to create the individual pieces. They’ve had a place on her lawn ever since.

“We look forward to it every year because it’s something that is special to us,” the 71-year-old said as she sat inside her home this week. “We’ve lost a few pieces over the years. A couple have gotten broken, but we still put out what we have. We have the main pieces.”

A few, she added, also have been stolen.

Just outside, baby Jesus lays between Mary and Joseph under shelter made with tubing and window blinds. The Three Wise Men kneel in blue, green and purple garb, and there are camels for each of them. There’s a beggar, an angel and animals, among other pieces. The colors Carole chose for each piece derive from countless Biblical stories with illustrations.

Mary, Carole thought, would be dressed in something soft, like light blue, and the Three Wise Men in darker colors. Carole painted Joseph in brown robes because “They didn’t have all the bright colors like we have today,” she explained.

For Carole and her husband, Bert Dillahay, the Nativity scene symbolizes the birth of their Lord.

“That’s the most important thing of Christmas,” Carole stressed. “The birth of our Savior.”

Bert said the Nativity scene is meant to celebrate the meaningful birth, which he and his wife said gets lost in today’s society.

“Too frequently,” Bert said.

“I feel that a lot of people don’t know what the real meaning of Christmas is,” she said. “There’s too much hustle and bustle and chaos going on, and so they just forget the real meaning of it.”

Luis and Millie Rodriguez

A decade ago, Millie Rodriguez and her husband, Luis, noticed a sign announcing a $5 sale at the Walmart on Cortez Road. The curious Millie elbowed her way through the crowd to see what the hot item was.

“Lo and behold it was nativities,” Millie said, her eyes still wide with wonder after all these years. “To us, it’s the reason for the season.”

Her husband grabbed Mary, Joseph and infant Jesus, while Millie took a second set for their daughter, Aimee.

Every year before Christmas, the couple places their blow mold Nativity scene on their front yard. Mary is dressed in blue with a white mantle draped over her head, her hands clasped together under her chin. Joseph kneels with his cane, and Jesus smiles in his sleep. Though the figurines have faded with age, their significance for the couple has not.

“He has his own little secluded spot there with the light. This is it,” Millie, 64, said inside their home in West Bradenton. “This is Christmas — celebrating the birth of our Savior.”

Christmas has become very commercialized over the years, Luis said.

“Over time people have moved away from the meaning of Christmas, which is really God’s gift to man, to give us Jesus Christ as born in Bethlehem,” he said. “We wanted to keep that tradition.”

The Nativity scene has always been present during the Christmas season for Millie, who grew up in a Puerto Rican household.

“We always had a little one in my mother’s house,” she said.

“The one made out of wood and it had the straw on top,” her husband added, his hands mapping out the shape of a small manger.

Millie chuckled to herself.

“It would be under the tree. We would have a small tree,” she said. “Oh my goodness, that was ions ago.”

The Berarducci family

The Berarducci family’s Nativity scene began on the grass. When that didn’t seem to work, Ben Berarducci built a platform on which to place Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the Three Wise Men and surrounding animals.

The Biblical figurines now sit on a bed of straw bought from a feed store. Lights run the length of the Berarducci family’s 20-foot flagpole to represent the Star of Bethlehem which, according to Christian tradition, led the wise men to Bethlehem.

“It’s what Christmas is all about,” Ben said when asked about the significance of the Nativity scene to him and his wife, Denise, and daughter, Crystal. “It’s the birth of the Christ child. We believe that he’s our Savior and that he was sent to Earth to offer salvation to us and that’s the beginning of his life.”

Crystal, 33, said her family has been decorating the outside of their Bradenton home for as long as she’s been alive.

“We get into all the fun, but we like the Nativity here. It’s on the corner, it’s what people see first,” she said, looking over at the crèche bathed in sunlight. “And that’s the purpose and the drive behind everything else.”

On a recent Sunday, Denise said a woman approached her to ask about their Nativity scene. The woman asked if they could turn the lights on, so Ben did.

“She specifically comes up from the Sarasota airport to see our lights every year, and the Nativity scene,” she said. “Because it makes Christmas for her.”

Denise began to recite a passage from the Gospel of John.

“Jesus says in John, Chapter 8, ‘I am the light of the world. He who comes to me will never walk in darkness, but have the light of life,’” she said, her eyes bright. “And it just seems if you’re going to put all these lights up, then we should put Him up too.”

Amaris Castillo: 941-745-7051, @AmarisCastillo