There’s something different about the island in the middle of Lake Taylor. Usually empty except for a wooden stable, the island now has figurines on it, including a baby.
Baby Jesus, to be exact.
He rests in a manger as Mary peers down at him, her hand drawn to her chest. Nearby, Joseph admires the boy, and wise men look on with gifts in their hands. There are sheep, a camel, a lamb and a few other onlookers.
Every holiday season, travelers who drive along Kempsville Road near Lake Taylor Middle School are greeted by the figurines, glowing in the night.
Some residents remember the scene fondly from when they were kids and look forward to it every year. Charla Smith-Worley has lived in the Lake Terrace neighborhood since 1951. Now treasurer of the Lake Taylor Civic League, her family drove by the nativity scene many times on the way to their family farm. “When you’re out here in what we called the country, it was a very bright spot to see over the years,” Smith-Worley said. She thinks the display adds a nice touch to the area.”It’s a good entrance way to our neighborhood,” she said.
Today, the environmental services and maintenance departments at Lake Taylor Transitional Care Hospital set up the scene, said Kim Limbaugh, a hospital spokeswoman. “They get in the row boat and they row them (the figurines) out,” she laughed.
The team rowed Baby Jesus to the island on Nov. 19, but the lights won’t turn on until this week, she said.
The scene has been part of Hampton Roads history for quite some time. While it’s uncertain exactly when the tradition started, there are reports that it dates to the 1930s. According to a 1947 report from The Pilot, Charles Hunt, then superintendent at the Norfolk Municipal Hospital, was inspired by a Christmas card and decided to decorate the island.
The hospital’s maintenance superintendent, James Dunbar, put up the lights. Dunbar loaded patients into his car and took them to see the decorations at night, the report said.
Eventually, they added two life-sized sheep, a realistic donkey and a wooden stable that Dunbar made with his maintenance crew and inmates from the City Prison Farm. It took them a month to make the stable.
At some point in the 1950s, city officials decided to stop the scene, possibly because of a fire that destroyed much of the original display. But residents objected and they changed their minds, The Pilot reported. Harry Frizzell, 82, lives in the neighborhood and remembers hearing about the fire. “I was really surprised that they put it back together,” he said. Over the years, the hospital’s volunteer auxiliary has bought replacement figurines to keep the tradition going, Limbaugh said. The island will also have a menorah to celebrate Hanukkah.
She said the decorations are part of the area’s history.
“It’s just part of Lake Taylor, and who we’ve always been,” she said. “We’ve just maintained that tradition.”