For decades before his death in 2010, longtime Representative Town Meeting member Nello Ceccarelli would set up a Nativity scene on Town Hall Green and stand vigil over the creche through snow, rain and frigid temperatures.
On Sunday morning, members of the Knights of Columbus continued Ceccarelli's Christmas tradition, setting up a Nativity scene by the corner of Old Post and Beach roads, in front of the town's Christmas tree.
"I'm pleased and so are my brother and sister that they're there," said Carol Lucibello of Branford, Ceccarelli's daughter. "God bless them."
"Christmas is something we should celebrate in the right way. That's what he believed in," Lucibello said, referring to her father, who died in July 2010 at the age of 94. "I'm sure he's up in heaven, watching over us all."
The crèche that Ceccarelli had set up on the green for so many years is now at Holy Family Church. In its place, a larger crèche, built by Tom Kapitan, a Fairfield resident and member of the Knights of Columbus at Holy Family Church, was assembled about 11 a.m. Sunday by Kapitan and Jim Keating, also a Fairfield resident and member of the Knights at Holy Family. The crèche will stay up until 11 a.m. Christmas Day, Kapitan said.
Kapitan said the new crèche was built to be more noticeable, but Keating said it's not a problem to transport and set up the larger crèche when several people help with the project. "Nello had Nello so he went with what he could easily transport, especially in the first few years," Keating said.
The Board of Selectmen in the 1980s permitted the Nativity scene -- and other religious displays -- to be set up on town property for a maximum of three days, as long as someone personally monitors it for the entire period. Ceccarelli, a devout Roman Catholic and member of Holy Family Church, used to handle that job himself, standing by his creche during the day and sleeping in a car parked nearby at night.
"He was never with us Christmas Eve because that's where he wanted to be," Lucibello said. "He always said, `Carol, if I died there, I'd be happy.' ... Christmas is so commercialized that he felt that was something he wanted to do."
A total of 40 Knights are scheduled for shifts to maintain the vigil by the crèche over the 48 hours between late Sunday morning and late Tuesday morning. Their shifts will last one or two hours, with one or two Knights per shift, Keating said. "It's a lot easier when it's two guys," he said. "When there's two people here, it goes twice as fast."
Keating said his shift, in addition to 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday, would be from 11 p.m. Christmas Eve until 1 a.m. Christmas Day and then later that morning to take down the crèche. He said he anticipates seeing many people who attend midnight services at First Church Congregational across the street and St. Paul's Episcopal Church next door.
A total of 300 people normally stop by to chat with the Knights and say a prayer over the 48 hours the crèche is up, and many bring refreshments, such as coffee from Dunkin' Donuts and Cumberland Farms, which are both nearby, and homemade cookies and hot chocolate, Keating said.
"Dog walkers and runners will stop, especially if they've been in the neighborhood for a while," he said. "There's a group that every Christmas morning runs. They get here about 8:30, and so they run up, they say a prayer and talk to you and then they get up and run down Beach Road."
Keating said he was pleased to hear the weather forecast was good through Christmas morning, saying it can be difficult to stand by the crèche in a freezing rain. He said the wind can be bad but rain is worse. "Two years ago, the first thing we did was shovel. I remember I kept warm because I shoveled out [space for the crèche] that year," he said. "Weather's more important than anything."
As Kapitan assembled the crèche Sunday morning, several motorists honked their horns as they approached the stop sign at Old Post and Beach roads, and Kapitan smiled and waved in greeting.
Kapitan said the crèche looks more impressive at night when it's illuminated by a light in the manger and a light on top, where a figurine of an angel is placed. The lights are powered by marine batteries that last from eight to 12 hours and can be recharged, Keating said.
The Knights at Holy Family Church took over the Christmas creche vigil because Ceccarelli was a longtime member of that church and had asked the Rev. Guido Montanaro, the church's pastor, if he knew anyone who could stay by the crèche in his stead, Keating said. He said Montanaro "came to our group because he knew we were active and said would we be interested in maintaining the tradition. We talked amongst ourselves and decided we would do it."
"We liked what Nello was doing. We thought it was a nice idea having the crèche set up in the middle of town," Keating said. "It seemed like a good idea and was something that fulfilled our mission to spread The Word."
Hav Tweedy, a member of the Knights of Columbus at St. Jude Church in Monroe, said having the crèche every year is important because it "makes a statement."
"We need it, whether it's us or Jewish people or anybody else. I think there needs to be some expression," Tweedy said. "I think there's just not enough of it any more. We're becoming more of a secular society than a religious society ... I think if we had some more people thinking about what's going on, we'd have less problems like Newtown," he said.
Keating said setting up the crèche every year has become "a nice tradition" and that the Knights wouldn't be doing it if it weren't for Ceccarelli. "If Nello hadn't started it, we probably wouldn't have started it," he said.
Lucibello said her family is grateful to the Knights and believes her father would be pleased the tradition he started more than a quarter-century ago was still alive. "That's what Christmas is," she said. "That's what it's all about."