At Salem Baptist Church in Apex, the challenge is to re-create the biblical manger down to the barnyard scent of donkeys and goats, to populate a suburban intersection with fishmongers and magi, to transport every visitor to the pages of Luke.
As soon as you get there, a census taker writes down your name for tax purposes, just as Caesar Augustus decreed.
Then you’re given a handful of shekels to spend in the marketplace, where you’ll find vendors juggling oranges and hawking bread.
At the end of all this spectacle, which takes a cast of 70 actors, you’ll find the baby Jesus himself – a real-live infant wrapped in contemporary swaddling clothes, crying in the night.
“It isn’t always the same baby,” confessed the Rev. Jeff Beckett. “Our couples continue to be fruitful and multiply.”
This year, at least 14 churches performed live Nativity scenes in the Triangle alone, with dozens more statewide, offering visitors a chance to experience the gospel in the same shivering, livestock-smelling conditions that Mary and Joseph might have endured.
Not only have these outdoor dramas gotten more numerous, playing in churchyards from Four Oaks to Zebulon to Cary, they’ve gotten more elaborate. Llama rides. Amplifiers. Spotlights. All for the story of a poor boy’s birth.
It’s a trend that parallels the growth of haunted houses at Halloween, with attractions growing more complex and drawing bigger crowds each year.
‘A real event’
Over four days in December, Salem Baptist’s Journey to Bethlehem drew nearly 3,500 people. They toured the grounds in groups of 25, embarking every seven minutes, many of them with reservations. One family from Taiwan scheduled its visit to the Triangle to coincide with Salem’s Nativity.
“This isn’t just children’s storybook entertainment,” Beckett said. “These weren’t fictional characters. This was a real teenage girl giving birth in a really nasty place, and a real carpenter wondering what in the world was going on, and real shepherds scared to death. This is a real event in a harsh environment.”
The first Nativity scene, as far as recorded history knows, can be credited to St. Francis of Assisi.
In 13th-century Italy, the friar who dedicated his life to imitating Jesus decided to re-create his birthplace inside a cave. He arranged for an ox and donkey to accompany his makeshift manger, and the crowds flowed in carrying torches.
The practice spread over centuries and continents. Protestant churches initially rejected the idea as idolatry, but they, too, joined the holiday observance. But unlike the scene in St. Francis’ cave, most of them now involve non-living figurines of endless size, shape and material. This year, at Pope Francis’ request, the Vatican’s Nativity scene was smaller, “very simple” and “back to basics.”
But a surge in the opposite direction is pushing the traditional holiday decoration to more realistic depictions:
• The Nativity scene in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., drew more than 5,000 people last year to see its angel that really flies.
• A church in Michigan offers visitors the sight of Kenya, a 7-foot camel, eating hay on stage.
• Greensboro College installed surveillance cameras and hired a security guard to prevent thefts at its Nativity scene.
• In 2012, revelers in England set the world record for most living Nativity figures: 845.
Those who choose to depict the birth live and outdoors say it promotes a greater understanding, even a kinship with the original participants, and they don’t postpone for weather or any other extraordinary events.
Shepherd to Joseph
Last week, Zebulon Baptist Church staged its semi-annual live Nativity on the front lawn, scheduling it just as the UNC basketball game began. A crowd of 100 gathered to watch, the audience members bouncing on their heels to keep warm.
“The first year,” said the Rev. Jack Glasgow, “it snowed.”
For the players themselves, it’s an easy chance at rich tradition. In Cary, Jacob Tobia started in the St. Francis United Methodist Nativity when he was 5 or 6, slowly working his way up from shepherd. Now a senior at Duke University, he made his fifth turn as Joseph this year.
“It’s an easy way to make my mom happy,” Tobia said. “I don’t do much method acting. I don’t ride over on a camel from my home. I’ve done theater before, and this is a low-intensity part. He’s not the center of the story.”
St. Francis has branched out its portrayal, adding roughly 100 model Nativity sets inside the church, all donated by members.
“We’ve got some from Germany; we’ve got some from Peru,” said Lore Gottberg at the church. “We’ve got wooden ones, porcelain ones, clay ones ...”
But outside in the cold, with the long underwear under their shepherds’ robes, a few dozen kids took a stab at the real thing – the way they did Christmas more than 2,000 years ago.