Tom Anderson quietly wiped a tear from his left eye as he told the story of how he had spread some of his wife’s ashes at the base of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem this past Easter.
He and Lonnie had been there together on previous trips to Israel and it was important to him that she live on in that place.
This day, the nattily-dressed 85-year-old was standing next to the crèche (pronounced “kresh”), a Nativity scene of the birth of Jesus Christ, that Lonnie had lovingly toiled over for nearly 20 years. This is the 23rd year that the display has graced the vestibule at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie.
Tom silently scanned the scene, occasionally pointing out special pieces of the display that were most important to Lonnie – and to him. And then he stood back to look again, his fingers to his lips.
Lonnie created many of the pieces in the display and refurbished others over the years. An information sheet available near the crèche challenges viewers to identify 85 different items that are part of the display.
Tom acknowledged that this time of year comes with even more memories and emotions.
“It’s been so meaningful to do this over all these years,” he said.
His daughter, a granddaughter and son help him each year continue the tradition that Lonnie and Tom started many years ago. The crèche has moved to different locations within the church over the years, but the fact that it’s still there matters more to him.
When Lonnie was in charge, there would be occasional additions and subtractions to the display, largely determined by what she was able to find on one of her seven trips to the Holy Land. These days, not a lot has changed, Tom said.
One near-disaster was averted. “We lost Jesus last year,” he said of the figurine that is part of the Nativity scene. “I put this up and take it down every year and it got put into an area where I couldn’t find it. But he was found.”
Had Jesus been stolen? “No, no, he wasn’t stolen. We don’t know people who would steal Jesus,” he said with a laugh.
Lonnie was equally well-known for the fairy garden she created in the couple’s backyard. She and Tom hosted weekly “fairy parties” that attracted dozens of costumed children. At the end of each party, Lonnie waited on the front porch to dispense gifts and fairy dust to each child.
Lonnie’s health eventually interrupted many of her activities. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, Tom said, and after having surgery, she was in remission for about 15 years, he said.
“And then it moved into her bones and they gave her six months to live.”
Lonnie received 140 chemo treatments over the years at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park. But Lonnie paid no mind to the doctors’ six month predictions.
“God gave us nine years,” Tom said.
Tom cared for Lonnie for those nine years. “They say ‘caretaker,’ but I was her caregiver and she took what I gave her and she gave it back to me,” he said. “We had a journey with the Holy Spirit through our life and I don’t know how we’d have ever done that without the Holy Spirit taking us each day.”
Tom and Lonnie were married in 1966. Lonnie’s death on July 28, 2019, at age 78, came five days before their 54th anniversary.
Lonnie was in hospice care in Edina for three days before she died. Tom returns to the hospice each holiday season for a special ceremony. “There have been 2,700 people who have passed away there,” Tom said. “And they light a candle for each one. I was there the other night. I’ve been there every year to light the candle and look at the tree.”
Tom has also been a volunteer at Methodist Hospital for 13 years, where he continues today.
That the crèche is in St. Andrew is not a coincidence. The Anderson family home stood on the same ground and the memories are strong.
“Right there was the living room of the house,” Tom said pointing just a few feet from where he stood. “That’s where my son got married. And my daughter got married in the barn, which I’m not kidding, was right there,” he added, pointing in the opposite direction.
“Where the elevator is, is where the hay barn (was),” he said. “I mean, everything has got such great meaning, it’s incredible.”
He pointed to the massive silver maple tree visible through church windows on the east side of the church building. “When I was young, I would sit on the porch reading and I would look at these trees,” he recalled. “They looked really big then; I’d say that tree is probably 150 years old.”
Former Pastor Rod Anderson named it the “Trinity Tree,” and its twigs were used to make a picket fence in the crèche. Stones from beneath it also found their way onto the display.
The village used to light up and there was a running water stream at one time, Tom said. Those special touches are gone now, but daughter Nichole still provides the loving touches each holiday season.
Granddaughter, Victoria, spends hours gluing many of the pieces to the display. “Little people have a tendency to push and pull, you know, so she puts everything in place,” Tom said with a smile. Son, Todd, does a lot of the heavy lifting putting the base together. It remains a family tradition.
All of the small stones on the crèche are from near and far, from the Holy Land to the ground beneath the Trinity Tree.
A large camel figurine, one of 29 from Department 56, the Eden Prairie-based gift and collectibles company, was accidentally damaged during unpackaging recently. Someone pieced the broken leg back together with a metal rod and glue, but it’s not the same, Tom said.
Unfortunately, all of the pieces are now retired from the company’s offerings.
Department 56 began as part of Bachman’s, the retail florist company that currently has a store in Eden Prairie. When a Bachman family member heard about the plight of the broken camel, they told Tom that a Department 56 artist had agreed to make professional repairs that will make it look like new.
St. Andrew and the tear catcher
St. Andrew parishioners have always admired the display, especially families with children. “Many of them appreciated the authenticity and creativity,” former St. Andrew Pastor Rod Anderson said. “Children especially appreciate the display at a low elevation where they can see all the features and spend a long time examining, observing and learning about the Christmas story.”
Families often linger in the church lobby waiting for their children to complete the adventure of finding small details before they are ready to go home. “The kids are just enamored with this and they want to stay and look at every little thing,” he said.
“Lonnie did such a wonderful job of assembling a collection of scenes and even pebbles that she picked up along her travels,” Pastor Rod said. “It think was all-consuming for her for a long, long time.”
One of Lonnie’s prized additions to the crèche is a tiny red ornamental glass vase outlined in gold paint that she bought in Italy in 1998 known as the “tear catcher.” “(Lonnie’s) mother passed away just before we went on a trip to the Holy Land with Pastor Rod,” Tom Anderson said. “We were in front of the tomb of Jesus and she put one of her tears in it.”
And it has occupied a place of honor on the crèche ever since.
A day after our interview, Tom called to report that he had decided to make a last-minute change to the crèche after all. He is planning to add a small, hand-carved camel that he brought home from Jerusalem last Easter. “I’m going to put that in there next to Lonnie’s favorite, the tear catcher,” he said. “It means a lot that (the camel) came from there and it means a lot to me, so I’m gonna put it there.”
The Nativity village will be on display until the middle of January, when it will be packed up and tucked away in the church storage room until the 2024 Advent season begins.
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