GREENFIELD – Live Nativity scenes are a classic part of the Christmas season, with Mary and Joseph watching Baby Jesus, with maybe a barnyard or two nearby.
But the Brandywine Community Church nursery captures much more than that.
Greenfield Church first hosted an immersive Night in Bethlehem experience in 2015, with a stroll through a bustling market and a walk past King Herod yelling at his soldiers.
And of course there is the Holy Family and a donkey or two.
The one-night-only free event returns to Brandywine today (Saturday, December 4) from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
It takes about an hour to complete the walking tour, three quarters of which are indoors.
The interactive experience offers hands-on activities, such as the opportunity for children to make their own jewelry with jewelry makers or swords with Roman soldiers.
Shauna Nivens first brought the idea to Brandywine when she was a member six years ago.
After taking a position at the nearby Park Chapel Christian Church in August, she suggested the two churches work together to host the growing event, which draws visitors for miles around.
This year will be the first Night in Bethlehem organized by the two churches, which brought together three separate teams of volunteers to perform the scenes from 10:30 am to 7:00 pm.
The event has typically attracted 1,100 to 1,300 visitors each year, but more time slots have been added this year to accommodate the crowds.
“We quickly had over 800 tickets claimed, so we opened a shift earlier,” Nivens said.
When guests check in, they sign a census, just as Joseph and Mary would when they entered Bethlehem.
They then pass through various exploration stations, where they can learn new things about Bethlehem and the birth of Christ while waiting for their group tour to begin.
Kids are given a bag of coins to spend in the Marketplace, while teens are given a quiz page to learn fun facts along the way.
Along with the nursery, the interactive market is often the highlight of the visit, Nivens said.
“In the market, visitors can make and take handicrafts and can taste different things; then their guide will lead them to Herod’s throne room, where they will hear his outburst over how he is looking for the baby Jesus, ”she said.
The tour then leads to a shepherd’s field, where a choir of angels proclaims the good news of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds. Each group is then led to the manger, where live animals sit near Mary and Joseph near the manger.
The last stop on the tour is for Cookies and Cocoa, where families can chat about everything they’ve seen.
“It has become a holiday tradition for a lot of families,” Nivens said. “A lot of people like it a lot because it’s so interactive. It awakens all the senses. “
It takes a village
It takes a lot of volunteers to bring the Night in Bethlehem to life every year.
For Brandywine Church member Tammy Coughenour, being part of the annual tradition is a family affair.
She and her three daughters – Josie, 19, Abigail, 17, and Paige, 12 – have volunteered at the event since its inception.
Tammy was a member of the Choir of Angels and was also a potter and carpenter in the market. Her daughters made jewelry, candy, and weapons in the market, even helping children make their own to take home.
“I love that the setting is actually what Bethlehem would have been like back then,” she said. “You kind of get an authentic taste of what it would have been like back then as well.”
Coughenour particularly enjoys the nursery scene. “It’s an amazing part, where you can feel like you’re in the stable. You can just feel like you’re part of the scene,” she said.
She also loves that the event has become a Christmas tradition for so many families in Hancock County and beyond.
“I know that many families come here every year. It’s so cool to see the faces of the grandparents, parents and kids all engaged and having a good time, ”she said.
Like Coughenour, Greg and Shannon Hall have also had their child volunteers at the event each year.
For the first five years, Greg portrayed Joseph, but this year he and his wife portrayed bakers in the market.
Many of their children played various roles throughout the year, including their teenage son Sam, who played a Roman soldier.
In a world sometimes caught up with the material side of the holidays, Greg Hall enjoys the chance to help spread the story of what he calls the real reason for the Christmas season.
“I think the walk through Bethlehem refers to those who are not necessarily religious. They can still have a good visual and a good impression of what may have happened ”the night Jesus was born, he said.
“It gives them a little bit of history, that God loves them and that Jesus died for their sins, and that’s how he came into the world.”
It’s also a lot of fun to take part in the production, Hall said.
Attention to detail
Another member of the Brandywine Church, Jeff Weiland, agrees. He has also played a role in the live event since its inception, depicting a potter in the market every year.
The Greenfield-Central High School art teacher – who also sells pottery and stained glass that he makes in his home art studio – even recreated a potter’s wheel based on historic images of wheels used at that time.
He loves that the interactive nativity experience gives people the chance to engage all of their senses, rather than just reading or hearing the story of Jesus’ birth.
“The sensory experience helps explain why we are celebrating the birth of this baby,” Weiland said.
“This event offers a refreshing, informative, meditative and stimulating experience. It’s great for all ages, including anyone involved in producing the event, ”he said.
For many, it’s a great way to keep perspective and focus on Christmas as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, he said.
Paul Galbraith, pastor at Brandywine, said the church receives many positive comments about the Night in Bethlehem event each year.
“A lot of people say ‘Thank you for hosting a free, fun and inspiring event for our family. It has become a family tradition for us, ”he said.
“Many participants express their gratitude for being able to visualize, at least in part, a little more of the culture and environment present when Jesus was born. The interactive market and the live nursery are always the main attractions for children.
Seeing real people describe the story so many people have heard from their childhood, “our hope is that each person gains a deeper understanding of the history of Christmas,” said Galbraith.
“The night in Bethlehem reminds us of what Christmas really is; Jesus, the Son of God, entering our human history in the most humble and fragile way. It gives the opportunity to collectively experience and celebrate his birth, and we give the opportunity to pause this season and reflect on God’s love for us, which inspires us to share our love for one another. others, ”he said.