City replaces downtown nativity scene with augmented reality display

Two years after quietly decommissioning Edmonton's 40-year-old outdoor manger scene, the city is rolling out an augmented reality depiction of the nativity instead. 

Longstanding display in Sir Winston Churchill Square not coming back

A screen capture of the augmented reality nativity scene at city hall in Edmonton. (Imran Ahmad/City of Edmonton)

Two years after quietly decommissioning Edmonton's 40-year-old outdoor manger scene, the city is rolling out an augmented reality depiction of the nativity instead. 

Visitors to city hall can explore various scenes of the Christmas creche and hear scripture readings and carols after downloading the city's app and using a smartphone to scan an icon at the city's downtown faith exhibit.

"This nativity scene that we have in this augmented reality gives us more to some degree than an outdoor nativity scene would have," city chaplain John Dowds said. 

"If my memory serves me correctly, we didn't have Christmas carols as a part of the outdoor nativity scene. We certainly didn't have any Bible readings that were included in that. So this actually builds on what was there before, but in a different way."

Outdoor display decommissioned

The outdoor display in Sir Winston Churchill Square featured life-sized, fibreglass figures of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus and wise men inside a wooden stable as well as, for many years, real animals. 

"It became part of the cultural fabric of decorations downtown," Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton spokesperson Lorraine Turchansky said. 

The outdoor Christmas creche displayed in Sir Winston Churchill Square annually for over 40 years will not be coming back, city chaplain John Dowds said. (Lincoln Ho)

The city cancelled the outdoor tradition and unveiled a much smaller, indoor nativity scene in 2017. 

Edmonton's Christian communities sent a letter to the mayor requesting the return of the outdoor display, initially hoping the move was temporary, due to ongoing construction around Sir Winston Churchill Square. 

But the outdoor display was worn and falling apart after years of outdoor winter exposure and faced security concerns, Dowds said.

The display also raised concerns within the city about giving one religion pre-eminence amid Edmonton's increasing diversity. 

"We've been sort of talking about 'OK, how do we continue to respect and include of course the Christian tradition and how do we respect and include other faith traditions as well?'" Dowds said. 

Edmonton faith leaders have continued to call for the return of the outdoor manger scene. 

'Christmas decorations are just fine'

"We love to see that menorah outside at the [legislature] grounds and our friends in the other faith communities think that Christmas decorations are just fine," Turchansky said. "And I think that many of them say they're willing to support us to restore that nativity scene if we can."

The city considered an outdoor projection of the nativity scene on a wall before the student-developed AR opportunity came up through a partnership with the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, Dowds said.   

Rev. Kevin Kraglund, a priest and rector of St. Patrick's Anglican Church in Mill Woods, who worked with the city and the students to develop the new app, said he's excited about the digital nativity.  

"It was disappointing of course with the outdoor nativity scene not being able to to be erected in Winston Churchill Square … but this is an alternative," Kraglund said. "We wouldn't say a replacement but it's another alternative for people to experience the story of Christmas."

The app is continuing to be developed to expand into AR scenes for other faith expressions as well, including Hindu, Baha'i, and Jewish celebrations. 

About the Author

Thandiwe Konguavi


Thandiwe Konguavi is an award-winning journalist, born in Zimbabwe. She is a reporter/editor at CBC Edmonton. Reach her at thandiwe.konguavi@cbc.ca. Follow her on Twitter @cbcthandiwe.


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