Old house inspires a Chatham Christmas tradition

By Doris Snipes

Pittsboro, NC – According to Strowd family tradition, the 1830s house shown here was the home of John Snipes Strowd (1809-1891). It was occupied and added to by generations of Strowds until the 20th century, when it was partially dismantled and the older section was moved to its present location a short distance away on Crawford Dairy Road. Doris Snipes describes how the manger scene came about.

I started making the manger scene around 1985. I remember looking at the old house one cold rainy day in the early winter and thought how it sort of reminded me of the stable Jesus was born in. I thought – what could I do with that? I first thought it would be impossible to do anything with it to create a manger because I did not have mannequins – nor just the head of a mannequin. I finally thought about using some of my old dresses. I had to find enough dresses that had long sleeves. I only had four. I tied a baler twine around the bottom of each dress and tied the sleeves closed at the wrist level. I buttoned or zipped the garment and stuffed it with balled up newspaper.

I needed one more “person” but had nothing to work with – so I happened to see a leather bag that we used to carry baseball helmets in and low and behold there were four helmets in it! I draped material around the bag, turned one helmet upside down and used it for the head. I found five-gallon buckets to sit some people in and a wooden chair with the back broken off. I still needed something to make Joseph look taller, so I got one of my husband’s microphone stands and put it through the back of the dress (to be a backbone) and he worked out great.

I scrambled through closets and the thrift shop to find bath robes of a plain dark color. I dressed each person and used plastic grocery bags stuffed with newspaper for the heads. They had to be stapled to the bath robes to keep them in place. I used old pillowcases and old neck ties to make the head gear. It just so happened that the first year I made the manger scene a movie came out that had a big white buffalo in it. It was so popular for kids that they made them and put them for sale in stores. He became my sheep! We brought hay over from the barn and scattered it about. Many times my “people” get knocked down with deer sleeping out there. My shepherd uses a “staff” which was my great grandpa’s walking cane.

Making the manger scene became something that my three boys, my husband and I all took some part in. Each year as we started decorating the house, they would ask when we were going to put up the manger scene. It just became our family tradition. As the boys grew and went to college, got married and moved away, Joe and I continued with the manger scene. It reminds me of our time when we were all a family at home together. Each year I kept thinking that it would be my last year of doing it, but I just kept going possibly because each year I would always have a note in my mailbox of how it had affected someone in a special way. We never know what the smallest of things that we do can have an effect on others.

I am so thankful for the neighbors and friends that have taken an interest in seeing that we try to keep this old house standing so that this manger scene can bring special meaning to the passersby that she greets each Christmas season.

This story first appeared on the Chatham Historical Museum Facebook page.