Mark Maginnis is a big fan of Christmas. When the kids were little, he and wife Diana filled their December backyard in Forest Park with large holiday figures he’d carved from plywood. And lots of lights. “Our Christmas joke was that we got a thank-you note from ComEd,” he says.
But as the kids got older and the figures began collapsing from snow and wind, Mark got another of what Diana refers to as “his brainy ideas””he created a Nativity scene for their church, River Forest United Methodist, on the corner of Lake Street and Thatcher Avenue. And this isn’t just any nativity scene: It moves.
The plans originally came from a woodworking magazine, Maginnis remembers. The figures are large and in silhouette, cut out with a saw. “It’s fairly easy to do,” he says, modestly.
He created about 15 of them”Mary on a donkey and another Mary kneeling (more about that later), Joseph, baby Jesus, three wise men, shepherds, an angel, assorted goats, sheep, camels and cows, a lean-to style barn and a manger. Diana was drafted to paint them all white.
That was just the start, however. “When I saw the plans for Mary on the donkey, I thought it would be interesting to move [the figures],” Mark recalls. At the start of Advent”four Sundays before Christmas”he stakes Mary (on the donkey) and Joseph near the church’s back door, along with a light to make them visible. Every few days he goes back and moves them (and the light) along their journey, down the side of the church.
In a few weeks he’ll begin to install the Nativity scene, starting with the lean-to and a few animals, at the front corner of the church. The shepherds and three wise men will arrive next. On Christmas Eve, with Mary and Joseph having reached their goal, a kneeling Mary will appear in the Nativity scene, and Maginnis will place the baby in the manger.
The first year, Maginnis “just kind of did it,” and hauled the figures to the church, unannounced. “I said, ‘Here it is. Do you like it?’ They loved it and every year since I have to do it,” he explains.
“It’s become a tradition with us,” says church pastor Rev. Char Hoffmann, who adds that they even considered building a garage to store it all, but the cost of village permits put a damper on that idea. “Everyone looks forward to the first Sunday in Advent, and it’s a surprise every Sunday to see how far [Mary and Joseph] have gone and what else is there.”
Anticipation, she notes, is what the season is all about. “Jesus’ coming was a surprise; not what everyone expected. And 2,000 years later, we’re still trying to figure it out. It’s exciting.”
It’s a tricky business for Maginnis to pull off. “It gets pretty cold; the stakes are hard to pull out. I have to move the lights, too,” he says. His youngest kids, nearly-16-year-old twins, help out. Last year, when weather had taken its toll and the figures were “starting to get sad,” according to Diana, she, Mark, a few other family members and church volunteers sanded and repainted the whole lot.
Over the years, the church has received letters from grateful onlookers who love to watch the journey play out. “We’re known as the church with that scene,” says Hoffman. “That’s something nice to be known for. We’ve got a lot of creative, fun people here, and we’re happy to share.”