Sunday, November 30, 2003

Cincinnati 101

Family's devotion keeps Crib of the Nativity

Cliff Radel

The Biedenharns are good shepherds.

They keep watch over a beloved Cincinnati tradition - the Crib of the Nativity next to Eden Park's Krohn Conservatory.

For 64 years, members of this Crittenden family have built and manned the scene sponsored by Western & Southern Financial Group.

Since 1939, three generations of Biedenharns have assembled a manger sturdy enough to make memories for millions of Cincinnatians.

"We try to create the feeling of Christmas here," said Jerry Biedenharn, in his 45th year working on the scene. He started with his dad, Andy. . Now, he's working with son Jeff and daughter Jody.

"People who come here," Jerry added, "see how simple Christmas and life can be."

Jerry was taking a break from waltzing with a 100-year hand-hewn log to get it in place in the barn. Jody was stringing lights in the trees. Jeff, hobbling on crutches with a sprained ankle, drove fence posts to hold a mini-forest of freshly cut pines. Still to come, life-size figures of Mary, Joseph and the Christ child, plus a live supporting cast of farm animals.

Jerry calls this stage of the work "crib time." It lasts a month - from moving everything out of a storage building in Erlanger until it's assembled and the Nativity scene opens Dec. 6.

On that date, the family trades work clothes for shepherd costumes.

Day and night, until the crib closes on Jan. 1, they stand watch and take turns spending the night. Each season, they answer questions, pose for and take pictures of 50,000-plus visitors. This year, the scene's total attendance should pass the 2.6 million mark.

The Biedenharns love it.

"We have to do this every year," Jeff said.

"Putting up this building and spending the holidays here is our family's Christmas tradition," Jody said.

The Shepherds Room is an 8-by-8-foot box attached to the rustic barn. It's a space where the shepherds change clothes and spend the night, containing modern conveniences - a microwave oven, telephone and heater - plus modern necessities: TV monitors for surveillance cameras.

"One year," Jeff said, "someone stole the Baby Jesus."

Three Christmas Eves ago, Jerry had just settled down for a long winter's nap. At the stroke of midnight, someone pounded on the barn's door.

The visitor asked:

"Where's Jesus?"

Asleep in the manger, Jerry told him. But, come daybreak, his spirit would be everywhere.


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