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Local artist shows how to create a great DIY Christmas

Gertrud Nelson
Gertrud Nelson with this year’s nativity scene, including pine cones, bits of greenery and macadamia nuts found on walks through her neighborhood.
(Lonnie Burstein Hewitt)

Gertrud Mueller Nelson does not spend time and money shopping for Christmas decorations.

She makes her own and encourages others to do the same. And what she makes is not only wonderful to look at, but fun to put together—as a solitary or family activity that really brings out the true holiday spirit.

At the heart of her annual DIY Christmas is a book she originally wrote in 2002 titled Build Your Own Bethlehem: A Nativity Scene and Activity Book for Christmastime. It’s a colorful book full of pop-out figures—the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the three Magi, and an assortment of angels, saints, shepherds and animals that can be positioned in different ways and in different places during the holiday season.

St. Nicholas, who was the inspiration for Santa Claus, with wild narcissus flowers found along a roadside.
St. Nicholas, who was the inspiration for Santa Claus, with wild narcissus flowers found along a roadside.
(Lonnie Burstein Hewitt)

But what really makes things special is adding your own personal touches—pinecones or fallen leaves you find on a walk through your neighborhood, or some small objects that mean something to you. Thinking about what you can add to each scene is part of the process; it makes you become more attentive to your surroundings and brings out your own creativity. And it’s even more fun when the activity is shared.

The book cover
The book cover
(Photo of book cover by Lonnie Burstein Hewitt)

Gert Nelson, an artist, writer and educator whose home base is now Encinitas, comes from a large family where creativity was always practiced and encouraged. Born in Germany, raised in Minnesota, and living in California since 1968, she took what she learned from her mother—who had a PhD in sociology and a gift for sculpting angelic figures in wood and clay—and passed it along to her children, who have passed it along to theirs.

“I originally created the figures in the book for my kids,” she said. “They were all black-and- white, and the kids would color them. Then somebody said: ‘If you color them yourself, we’ll turn it into a book and publish it.’ And that’s what happened.”

Pages from the book with pop-out figures: sheep, dog, dove, stars and the Angel Gabriel.
Pages from the book with pop-out figures: sheep, dog, dove, stars and the Angel Gabriel.
(Lonnie Burstein Hewitt)

Every year, there are new variations in the scenes she creates; it’s never the same thing twice. When she goes for a walk, she’s always looking, discovering, picking up pinecones, seedpods or pebbles and thinking of ways to repurpose them.

“That’s where the art is,” she says. And she offers visitors a chance to participate by adding their own found objects, or even creating their own book.

It’s a great way to say bye-bye to the constant pressure to buy-buy and wake up to your own creative nature—a real holiday gift. And it’s a gift that keeps on giving when the holidays are over. Best of all, like Gertrud Nelson, anyone can do it…starting now.

To order a signed copy of Build Your Own Bethlehem, contact the author at gertmuellernelson@gmail.com


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