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Bethlehem is back; churches keep Christmas story alive

Bethlehem is back; churches keep Christmas story alive

As soon as Thanksgiving dishes are cleaned and put away, Florida Conference churches will prepare to herald the arrival of Christmas, many with elaborate events that commemorate the birth of Jesus. 

Lighted living nativity scene against dark sky
The annual "Drive-Thru Christmas Experience" at Belleview UMC in Central Florida is a highly anticipated event for church volunteers and spectators alike and draws walk-through traffic as well. Photos from Cindy Brodie.
Pickup truck full of people waving drives by

Organizers at Belleview UMC and First UMC, Coral Gables, say their annual living nativity scenes are gifts to the community. They rely on their members to produce realistic manger scenes that often stop traffic.

In Coral Gables, this year’s “A Walk through Bethlehem” is set for 6-8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4. It’s a reboot of the congregation’s “Meeting at the Manger” event, said church youth director Robert Gray, adding that a young couples group began coordinating the event this year.

“In the past, we had a 20- by 20-foot tent where the kids did crafts, but we wanted the event to be more about what we are about,” Gray explained. “So this year we will have six booths that tell the story of Jesus, and the children can go from each booth [to booth] to learn something.”

Interactive experiences will include sampling the Middle Eastern delicacy of hummus, swaddling a baby, learning about frankincense and myrrh from the Wise Men and petting live goats and sheep.  

In addition, as it has for eight years, the congregation will stage a living nativity scene in front of the downtown church.

“It grew from a small plywood scene, and the setup has evolved over time,” said Gray, who was an architect before he became First UMC’s youth director. “We decided to build a set that we could reuse every year. We begin putting it up the Sunday after Thanksgiving.”

First UMC piggybacks on the city’s annual lighting of the Christmas tree, always on the first Friday of December. The church is located next to City Hall, and Gray said the events complement each other and the tree lighting draws a lot of foot traffic to the church. 

“We can get 500 to 600 people coming through our part,” he said. “It’s about outreach. … We believe it’s our job to be the light in the darkness and tell the story about Jesus.” 

In addition to the outdoor festivities, First UMC will have prayer teams stationed inside the sanctuary for visitors.

Gray said the event requires 60 to 70 volunteers, and many come from the youth group. People often get to know one another by working together, especially for the live nativity. 

“This [event] gets our generations working together,” he says. “It also gets us in the Christmas spirit.”

Since 1998, Belleview UMC has hosted its “Drive-Thru Christmas Experience” on the church’s front lawn, just off County Highway 484. Visitors don’t have to tour the scene by car, however; they can also take their time walking through the six scenes that tell the story of Jesus.

Crowd watching nativity re-enactment outside First UMC Coral Gables
Staging living Christmas scenes is a labor of love for local churches, but organizers say the ministry brings ample rewards. Photos from First UMC, Coral Gables.
Volunteers work on mock stable for nativity manger scene

This year’s event will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. on Dec. 17-19, and church leaders say it’s an outreach ministry as well as a gift to the community.

“Each year is different with attendance,” said Cindy Brodie, the church education director. “We’ve had some years where we have reached hundreds of cars.”

Pastor Kristina Schonewolf came to Belleview UMC last summer and is looking forward to seeing the drive-through event for the first time. 

“I absolutely see this as an outreach,” Schonewolf said. “We’re showing that we want to serve the community. If people happen to be looking for a church or going through a crisis, they will remember us as the church that opened its doors to the community at Christmas.” 

Brodie said the congregation shares that viewpoint.  

“Our congregation truly sees it as a community outreach because we are sharing the true reason for the season,” she said. “Everyone in the church looks forward to this event. There are different touching moments, and many of those come from the interaction with the community.” 

Each night, the Belleview church will have at least 30 actors and greeters in the public eye, plus up to 10 or so volunteers behind the scenes, handling such things as setting up luminaries or keeping the live animals calm. On event days, everyone gathers at 5:30 p.m. for dinner, and volunteers help the characters get into costumes by 6:30. 

Brodie said church members begin asking in September when they’ll be able to sign up to volunteer.

“It is not always the same people volunteering each night, either, but we do have a few that are constant in their slots,” said Brodie, who has coordinated the event for several seasons. “Most of the volunteers have been doing this for years.” 

The church always has extra costumes on hand in case people forget to sign up but show up to help.

The biggest challenges of the production often come in scenes where live animals are used. 

“We’re always worried that we may not be able to get the live animals,” explained Brodie. “We have a gentleman who loans us his donkeys each year, but the animals are getting older and we will have to find younger ones soon.” 

Getting lambs for the shepherds' scene depends on whether or not the church’s youth are involved in Future Farmers of America in middle or high school.

Some years the church has had to use wooden cutout animals instead.

Is the effort worth the returns?

Brodie thinks so. In email comments, she wrote: “We do not get tired of providing this event even though it is the same story every year.

“There is always something special about it. Sometimes it is the actors and actresses, sometimes it’s the comments that people share, sometimes it’s through the words of the music we play during the event, and it is most definitely in the blessings we receive and give to others. I cannot fully explain it in words. You just have to experience it, feel it and let God touch you through this display of His love.” 

-- Mary Ann DeSantis is a freelance writer based in Lady Lake.