The manger scene displayed for more than four decades in Burlington North Park in Wadena, Minnesota, was not particularly unique. Joseph and Mary wore traditional colored robes, and baby Jesus rested in the crib. An angel watched over the scene singing praise for the birth of the Savior.
The townspeople expected to see the manger scene in the park every Christmas. That was until 2015, when their faith was challenged and the city was thrust into the national spotlight.
Lawsuit Threatens Christmas Tradition
Wadena is like most small towns in America. With less than 5,000 people, the major employers are the local hospital, Walmart, and the school system. Several festivals are held there each year celebrating the seasons and historical events.
The Christmas season, like in most towns, is the most festive. Every year a “Listen to the Lights” display put on by one of the citizens draws big crowds. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving a Christmas Festival is held featuring crafts, food, and music.
In January 2015, the Wadena city council and mayor received a letter from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin atheist organization, about the group’s intentions to protest the display of the manger scene in Burlington North Park.
The city council announced it would address the issue at their November 10, 2015 meeting. According to media coverage, the room was packed with citizens wanting the nativity to stay in the park. But the citizens did not get their way. Fearing a lawsuit, the vote to remove the outdoor manger scene from the park was unanimous (despite influential Supreme Court precedents protecting the right to display nativity sets on public property).
Mayor George Deiss told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that the decision weighed on him heavily.
“At first, it was looking like a pretty sad Christmas,” he told the newspaper.
It could have all ended there, but the citizens of Wadena decided to fight back. Like angry citizens often do, they called the mayor and council members. But the town also banded together and created a holiday movement.
Residents Rally Enormous Support
One of the leaders was local resident Dani Sworski, who started a Facebook event, Wadena Nativity Display. You couldn’t walk very far during the holiday season without seeing a manger scene. Storefronts displayed them. Residents put at least one, but sometimes several, in their yards and on their porches.
Deiss told the Star-Tribune he had “eight or nine” of them at his residence.
People from around the region offered to donate nativity scenes to the town.
As the number of displays grew, so did the attention from the press. Television stations from Minneapolis-St. Paul, which is about 160 miles away, came to the town and interviewed the townspeople and residents. The Associated Press picked up the story from the Star-Tribune and it was distributed worldwide.
While the attention brought out some supporters of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, thousands more people expressed their agreement with the Wadena residents. The Facebook page set up by Sworski drew more than 2,200 people. The comments came from as far away as Spain, Australia, and Germany.
One man from Missouri wrote: “Thanks for helping remind us the Reason for the Season. You can take the Nativity Scene out our Park too but you can’t take CHRIST out of My CHRISTmas! Let’s fill the World with the Wonderful News that My Lord and Savior was Born on CHRISTmas!”
A woman commented: “I just saw the news report on FB and I want to CONGRATULATE your town for standing up for faith, Christ, and Christmas! I’m so glad you rallied together, you all are truly overcoming evil with good! God bless you guys!!”
Another Facebook group encouraged residents to “Take a Stand in Wadena” by performing Christmas carols in Burlington North Park a few days before Christmas.
Manger Scene Returns to the Park
According to the Star-Tribune, the park did not go without an outdoor manger scene at Christmas, though.
A former Wadena resident named Brady Folkestad discovered the bandstand could be rented for a day.
Everyone morning, someone set up a manger scene and then returned in the evening to take it down. Next to the crèche was an inflatable Santa Claus.
The stage is already set for next year, according to Sworski.
“I’m praying we get as amazing as a response over the next few years as we did the first!” she said. “The nativity really brought our community together!”