By Steve Guntli
An old wooden nativity scene has been set up on the corner of C and 6th streets. It is there to promote a living nativity pageant at Northwoods Alliance Church on December 18, but for one Blaine family, the scene is more than a festive advertisement; it represents the family’s introduction to the warmth and uniqueness that define Blaine.
Margaret Gibson and her family moved to Blaine from New Mexico in 1992, in order for Gibson’s husband to attend graduate school in Vancouver. Gibson, now school nurse for the Blaine school district, quickly fell in love with the town and thought it would make a great place to raise her family. But there was one decidedly family-unfriendly element to downtown Blaine that gave her pause.
Blaine Bookstore, which used to sit on the corner of H Street and Peace Portal Drive, was more commonly known in Blaine as simply “the dirty bookstore.” By the 1990s, it was something of a relic, a leftover element from Blaine’s seedier past as a bustling fishing port and haven for Canadians looking to cut loose.
Gibson recalls seeing the adult bookstore in its prominent place along the city’s main strip and being a little taken aback. It seemed bluntly out of place with the small-town atmosphere the other downtown businesses were working to promote.
“It had gray walls and iron bars on the windows and resembled a jail in a frontier town,” she said. “It was very out of place, but before long I just learned to ignore it and enjoy the views of the harbor.”
As the holiday season approached, one detail about the bookstore struck her as particularly unusual: a large Christmas nativity scene, assembled by city employees just next to the bookstore in what is now H Street Plaza. She found the incongruity between the beautiful wooden crèche and the drab pornographic retailer a little jarring.
“The crèche had this Renaissance quality to it, like time had layered it,” she said. “The paint was stripping in places, but it just heightened the beauty of it. It was well-lit and just gorgeous, and it was situated in this rather strange place.”
As the years passed, Gibson put the adult bookstore, and its adjoining nativity scene, out of her mind. The bookstore went out of business by the late 1990s, the building was demolished and the city stopped setting up the Christmas crèche in the plaza.
It wasn’t until several years later that Gibson even thought of the display again. She was driving past Blaine Middle School and saw volunteers cleaning up at the end of a rummage sale. The group was trying to raise money for the new skate park behind the library.
The volunteers were packing away the last of the unsold items when Gibson noticed the camel from the nativity set from the plaza. The city had hauled the set out of storage and donated it to raise funds for the skate park.
Within minutes, Gibson had acquired the 11-piece nativity set and was hauling it back to her house.
“It was clear this thing was on its way to the dumpster,” she said. “But I remembered how striking the crèche was and I thought it might be a good way to advertise for our living nativity scene.”
The living nativity is a yearly tradition for Gibson’s church, Northwood Alliance Church.
The figures were originally painted on masonite board, but had badly deteriorated over the years. Over the course of a weekend, Gibson and several volunteers got together to restore the figures. They used the original figures as patterns to craft new stand-ups with marine-grade plywood, which can better withstand the Pacific Northwest’s weather. The figures were painted to closely match the originals.
The living nativity will be modeled after the crèche. Live llamas will stand in for camels, and a few goats and sheep will join the scene. Gibson’s Newfoundlands will stand in for cows, with actors standing in for the human figures. The event itself will feature horse-drawn carriage rides, live music, food and drinks and a narrator reading the original story of the nativity.
But it’s the crèche itself that Gibson is particularly fond of, both for its Christmas message and its symbolic place in Blaine’s history.
“It was just one of life’s fun little absurdities,” she said. “There was this real disconnect, but it also gave me a sense of how unique this town is, and I’m glad I was able to preserve it.”
The living nativity pageant starts at 6 p.m. on Friday, December 18 at Northwood Alliance Church, 580 C Street.