The city, in its modern incarnation, was chartered in 1917.
Forty-nine years later — and 49 years ago this past Christmastime — a nativity set was purchased through donations to a non-governmental foundation.
For its first display in December 1966, “several thousand persons braved cold weather to take part in the singing of carols and hear the dedicatory message,” according to news accounts.
A similar event took place in following years, with congregants of the then-four churches surrounding the circle gathering outside, along with members of other churches in and around the city, for a service and Christmas carols.
That practice did not translate into tradition. However, the nativity scene itself has become about as “Kingsport” as you can get. A potential storm of controversy brewed last year when rumors circulated through the community that the nativity scene would not be going up.
Half of the original purchase price of $10,000 came from a single, anonymous donation of $5,000.
The scene’s number of players has apparently fluctuated over the years, with news reports describing 18 figures in 1966 and donations in the ensuing year adding seven more.
Back when the original set was donated, in 1966 by the Circle Churches Christmas Foundation, the Kingsport Jaycees were asked to manage the storage and maintenance of the set. The organization has done so for the past 50 years, with help from volunteers in the community.
The figures displayed in recent years are all original to that time, with the exception of the infant Christ. He was stolen a few years ago, but recovered. Only to be stolen again. The second time, the figure had to be replaced.
Over the years, other fiberglass figures have undergone repairs, the most common being new paint jobs. But more serious repairs have included replacement of missing hands and reattachment of a shepherd’s head that was chopped off by a vandal.
In anticipation of the nativity’s display this year — marking its 50th anniversary — the Kingsport Jaycees are calling on members of the community to help fund a complete refurbishment of the set.
The work is underway and Matthew Kern, president of the Kingsport Jaycees, said the goal is to complete the refurbishment in time for the annual display to go up the weekend following Thanksgiving.
“The Kingsport Jaycees would like to extend a special thanks to Impact Plastics for taking up the task of restoring the nativity, Lorie Way for heading up the effort to repaint and store the figures, and Debbie Waggoner and Cindy Lemons for assisting in organizing community donations,” Kern said. “We are very appreciative of the support we have received from the community and our local churches thus far and hope we receive enough donations to have the entire nativity refurbished for its 50th anniversary.”
“Many former Jaycee members have fond memories of being part of the set-up and take-down of the nativity,” said Waggoner, past president of the Jaycees. “And most of the members of our community feel a personal attachment to this nativity scene because of the memories they have that include it.”
Lemons said according to information from the city’s archives, the Circle Churches Christmas Foundation was formed solely to purchase the nativity figures. The organization included members from the then-four circle churches: First Baptist, First Presbyterian; Broad Street Methodist, and First Methodist. Since that time First Methodist and Broad Street Methodist joined together to become First Broad Street United Methodist Church.
The wedges of land the nativity occupies each Christmas are owned by the churches.
Waggoner said the Jaycees hope to raise at least $15,000, an amount which could potentially provide some money to improve the lighting of the scene.
Waggoner said the Jaycees hope to hold a special 50th anniversary first-lighting event when the set goes on display this year, something reminiscent of the celebratory gatherings described in its earliest years.
TriSummit Bank has joined with the Kingsport Jaycees to offer drop-off locations for donations to the effort. Contributions can be made at any TriSummit Bank branch, including the one located on Church Circle. Donors may also mail checks (memo: Nativity) to the Kingsport Jaycees, P.O. Box 3742, Kingsport, TN, 37664.
Anyone interested in helping may also contact Cindy Lemons at (423) 765-3090 or Waggoner at (423) 676-2419.