GREENFIELD — Live nativity scenes are a classic part of the Christmas season, with Mary and Joseph looking down at the Baby Jesus, with perhaps a barnyard animal or two nearby.
But the nativity scene at Brandywine Community Church captures much more than that.
The Greenfield church first played host to an immersive Night in Bethlehem experience in 2015, complete with a stroll through a bustling marketplace and a walk past King Herod shouting at his soldiers.
And of course, there’s the Holy Family and a donkey or two.
The free one-night-only event returns to Brandywine today (Saturday, Dec. 4) from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
It takes about an hour to complete the walking tour, three-fourths of which is indoors.
The interactive experience offers hands-on activities, like the chance for kids 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 there six years ago.
After she took a staff position at the nearby Park Chapel Christian Church in August, she suggested both churches work together to put on the growing event, which draws visitors for miles around.
This year will be the first Night in Bethlehem put on by both churches, which have assembled three separate shifts of volunteers to act out the scenes from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The event has typically drawn 1,100 to 1,300 visitors each year, but more time slots were added this year to accommodate the crowd.
“We quickly had over 800 tickets claimed, so we opened up an earlier shift,” Nivens said.
When guests check in, they sign a census, just as Joseph and Mary would have done when they entered Bethlehem.
They then travel 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 get a bag of coins to spend at the marketplace, while teenagers receive a trivia page to learn fun facts along the way.
Along with the Nativity scene, the interactive marketplace is often the highlight of the tour, Nivens said.
“In the marketplace, visitors can make and take crafts and can taste different things; then their tour guide will take them into Herod’s throne room, where they will hear his rampage on how he’s looking for the baby Jesus,” she said.
The tour then leads to a shepherd’s field, where a choir of angels is proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds. Each tour group is then led to the Nativity scene, where live animals sit near Mary and Joseph by the manger.
The last stop on the tour is for cookies and cocoa, where families can chat about all that they’ve seen.
“This has grown to become a holiday tradition for a lot of families,” Nivens said. “A lot of people have really grown fond of it because it’s so interactive. It brings out all the senses.”
It takes a village
It takes a lot of volunteers to bring the Night in Bethlehem to life each year.
For Brandywine Church member Tammy Coughenour, taking part in the annual tradition is a family affair.
She and her three daughters — Josie, 19, Abigail, 17, and Paige, 12 — have been volunteering at the event since its inception.
Tammy has served in the angel choir, and has also been a pottery and woodworker in the marketplace. Her daughters have made jewelry, candy and weapons in the marketplace, even helping kids to make their own to take home.
“I love the fact that the setting is actually like what Bethlehem would have been like back in those days,” she said. “You kind of get an authentic taste of what it would have been like during those times as well.”
Coughenour especially loves the manger scene. “That’s an incredible part, where you are able to feel like you’re in the stable. You’re able to just feel like you’re a part of the scene,” she said.
She also loves the fact the event has become a Christmas tradition for so many families throughout Hancock County and beyond.
“I know many families come here every year. It’s so neat to see the faces of the grandparents and the parents and the kids all engaged and having a good time,” she said.
Like Coughenour, Greg and Shannon Hall have also had their kids volunteer at the event each year.
For the first five years, Greg portrayed Joseph, but this year he and his wife are portraying bakers in the marketplace.
Many of their kids have played various roles throughout the year, including their teenage son Sam, who portrayed a Roman soldier.
In a world sometimes caught up by the material side of the holidays, Greg Hall loves the chance to help spread the story of what he calls the real reason for the Christmas season.
“I think the walk through Bethlehem gives a reference to those who aren’t necessarily church-goers. They can still get a good visual and a good feeling of what might have happened” on the night of Jesus’ birth, he said.
“It gives them a little background to the story, that God loves them and Jesus died for their sins, and this is how he came into the world.”
It’s also a lot of fun to take part in the production, Hall said.
Attention to detail
Fellow Brandywine Church member Jeff Weiland agrees. He’s also played a role in the live event since its inception, portraying a potter in the marketplace each year.
The Greenfield-Central High School art teacher — who also sells pottery and stained glass he makes in his home art studio — even recreated a pottery wheel based on historical pictures of wheels used in that period.
He loves the fact that the interactive nativity experience gives people the chance to engage all their senses, rather than just reading or hearing about the story of Jesus’ birth.
“The sensory experience helps to teach why we celebrate the birth of this baby,” Weiland said.
“This event provides a refreshing, informative, meditative and thought-provoking experience. It is great for all ages, including all who are involved in the production of the event,” he said.
For many, it’s a great way to help keep perspective and focus on Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, he said.
Paul Galbraith, a pastor at Brandywine, said the church receives much positive feedback on the Night in Bethlehem event each year.
“A lot of people say ‘Thank you for providing a free, fun and inspiring event for our family. This has become a family tradition for us,’” he said.
“Many participants express 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 marketplace and live Nativity are always the top attractions for the kids.”
By seeing real people portray the story that so many have been hearing since they were kids, “our hope is for every person to gain a deeper understanding of the Christmas story,” Galbraith said.
“Night in Bethlehem reminds us what Christmas is really about; Jesus, the Son of God, entering our human story in the most humble and fragile of ways. It provides the opportunity to collectively experience and celebrate his birth, and we give an opportunity to pause in this season and reflect on God’s love for us, which inspires us to share our love for one another,” he said.