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Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2012 Archives > July-August 2012 > Feature- Living Nativity Series

Living Nativities portray story, extend invitations

By Tita Parham

After staging a live Nativity as part of a community celebration, Angelica (N.Y.) United Methodist Church uses wooden figures in the scene for the remainder of the Advent and Christmas seasons.
After staging a live Nativity as part of a community celebration, Angelica (N.Y.) United Methodist Church uses wooden figures in the scene for the remainder of the Advent and Christmas seasons.

Don't tether any of the animals to the stable backdrop — they may pull it down. Keep an eye on the donkeys — they tend to wander. Have a shovel nearby.

That was some of the advice offered in an Internet survey Interpreter conducted to assist churches considering having a live Nativity scene during Advent.

Another tip? Start planning early. That means now.

"Start talking about it in the summer. Try to involve as many people as (you) possibly can," said the Rev. Charles Klink, former pastor at Montezuma (Iowa) United Methodist Church.

In 2011, Klink's congregation worked with three other United Methodist churches to coordinate a live Nativity in a location central to all — and just off an interstate highway so people could access it easily. It took place for three hours on each of two nights.

A three-sided structure formed a backdrop for Joseph, Mary, Jesus, shepherds and wise men. A choir of angels from Klink's church sang Christmas carols. Passersby saw the crèche and heard the music.

When multiple churches are involved, Klink said, it's important for the clergy to "be the wheels of the wagon. It creates camaraderie among the clergy."

Leslie Haggstrom agrees a living Nativity is a good opportunity for pastors and lay people from different churches to work together. But planning one, she says, is not difficult.

Angelica United Methodist Church, which has an average worship attendance of about 40 and is located in a rural village of less than 900 people in upstate New York, has staged a live Nativity scene for more than 30 years.

The living Nativity is part of a community event that takes place in the village circle surrounded by businesses and several churches.

The Sunday before Christmas, luminaries are placed throughout the circle. Participants gather around a lit tree in the middle of the park to sing carols. They then walk to the nearby United Methodist church to see people portraying those who were part of the events surrounding Jesus' birth.

While a narrator reads the Christmas story, costumed children and youth portray Mary and Joseph arriving at the stable that's been placed in front of the parsonage. Wise men and shepherds visit, and an angel announces Jesus' birth. A choir of church and community members intersperses the reenactment with carols.

The setup includes spotlights and a sound system, bales of hay and a few animals — a pony or horse for Mary to ride and some sheep.

After the portrayal, the group goes from church to church in the community — Episcopal, Baptist, Catholic, United Methodist — reading Scripture and singing carols. They end with refreshments at one of the churches, where the winners of the town's decorating contest are announced.

"If you can make it a community event that includes the other churches and people who don't even go to church, it becomes a more inviting way to remind people of the real reason for the season," Haggstrom said.

It is a decades-long tradition for the church and community and one that often takes place in snow and freezing temperatures.

That means the costumes — which Haggstrom says can be as simple as burlap sacks and robes — must be big enough to wear over snowsuits.

"I can't tell you how many times we have shivered through 5-degree weather and only 20 people watching, but it is something we do ... year after year," she said. "It's a great community outreach to remind people that Jesus is there; it's not just Santa Claus."

Tita Parham is a freelance writer, editor and communications consultant based in Apopka, Fla.

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