Living Nativities a labor of love for area congregations
If you go
Whitewater - First United Methodist Church presents a Living Nativity for the Whitewater Christmas Parade and again at 5 p.m., Dec. 6 at Cravath Lakefront in Whitewater.
Burlington - English Settlement United Methodist Church holds Christmas in the Barn every half hour from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., Dec. 24, in the barn at Squire's Farm, in Burlington.
Elkhorn - Sugar Creek Lutheran Church presents their Living Nativity in two 20-minutes services, at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m, Dec. 24. This year's service is held at the Maple Lawn Farm in Elkhorn.
Sharon - Nativity Walk, Dec. 5, at Triune Lutheran Church, N1584 County Highway K, Sharon. More than 100 Nativities on display, live music and lunch available, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
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The First United Methodist Church in Whitewater stages a living Nativity at Cravath Lakefront with youngsters playing most of the parts. File photo by Lynn Greene/staff.
BURLINGTON -- There are no special effects or big-name celebrities, but the annual performance of Christmas in the Barn has been bringing people back for 40 years.
In 1969 Joseph Webb, then pastor of the English Settlement Methodist Church in Burlington, wanted to bring the biblical account of Jesus' birth alive for people. He decided to hold a service with a living Nativity, complete with animals and a group of costumed church members portraying the holy family, shepherds, wise men and angels. Webb staged it in a local barn, then owned by Everett Squire. One service grew to two, then three, as more people came to watch.
Once again this Christmas Eve, now in 30-minute performances from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., audiences will be able to experience Christmas in the Barn.
Although Everett's son John and his wife Cindy now own the property, the location has remained constant over the years. So has the number of people attending -- usually about 1,000 each year, said Bev Squire, one of the organizers of the event.
"It's the same format every time, with Scripture reading and singing - acapella because we don't have a piano in the barn." Squire said.
Although rehearsals aren't needed, logistical planning is. What started with a handful of children from the Sunday school program and a few adult members of the church has grown into a large cast; a different infant portrays baby Jesus at each performance. There are also dozens of behind-the-scenes workers, from those who set up the converted dairy barn - now primarily used for storage - with enough hay bales to seat about 120 people, to volunteers who bake Christmas cookies for the audience after the service.
"People want to be a part of it every year, and consider it an honor," Squire said. "For the members of our church who are in it, it's their gift to the church."
The crowds don't tempt organizers into staging the performance at a bigger venue. Squire said even one of her sons-in-law who is prone to think "bigger is better" agreed that the Nativity wouldn't be the same if not in the familiar setting that reminds people of where Jesus was born.
"Christmas Eve is supposed to be in the barn," Squire said. "Watching the service gives me a lot of goosebumps."
Sugar Creek reenactment in Elkhorn
Christmas in the Barn may be the granddaddy of the living Nativities offered in the area, but Sugar Creek Lutheran Church in Elkhorn has also been hosting one for some 15 to 20 years, according to Martha HarriSon, the church's director of youth and family ministries.
The church offers two 20-minute services at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve at area farms; this year, it will be held at Maple Lawn Farm in Elkhorn.
HarriSon said about 100 to 150 people attend the performances of costumed children and animals ranging from cows and a donkey to goats and the occasional chicken.
There are no lines, only a narrator reading the biblical account.
"I think what people like about it is its simplicity. It reminds them of the first Christmas," HarriSon said. "For many people, the barn service has become the tradition of what they do on Christmas Eve. I love to see everyone bundled up coming out to join us."
Whitewater event held at the Cravath Lakefront Park
First United Methodist Church in Whitewater is only in its fourth year of holding a living Nativity and the church also provides people who ride on a living Nativity float in the local Christmas parade.
The Nativity reminds people of "the reason for the season, the birth of Jesus," said Anne Gibson, the church's director of Christian education and a coordinator of the event.
According to Gibson, the Nativity alternates between inside and outside settings each year. This year, it will be held outside on Dec. 6.
The single performance runs about 30 to 40 minutes, but afterwards people can stay for refreshments and pet the animals or even go on camel rides, courtesy of the animals provided by Jo-Don Farms of Franksville.
Gibson said the performance is the result of much effort from church members who work with the children in the cast on the singing and music, parents who help with staging and "oodles of extra hands."
Everyone is invited to participate. Those who sign up are asked to explain why they'd like to portray a certain character.
"We work with them ahead of time and we've tried to encourage them to actually think about playing, for example Joseph, and what that must have been like so that they're actually kind of stepping into the role," Gibson said. "I'd like to think it gives the story a deeper meaning for them."
The combination of live animals and a cast that's filled with children can lead to some interesting moments.
HarriSon said the goats in the performance - who like to chew on paper - often tussle over the program sheets with audience members, and a cow once got her son wet.
David Kalas, pastor of First United Methodist who narrates the service, recalled a camel "making a deposit most people were aware of." In another instance the young actor portraying Joseph wasn't exactly sticking to the script.
"Joseph was supposed to carefully prepare a place for Mary," Kalas said, "but at 10 years old, how sensitive and chivalrous are you?"
Weather also plays a role. Squire remembered having to cancel the service one year because it was too cold, although a couple of cars still showed up.
Living Nativities aren't new. St. Francis of Assisi is thought to have created the first in the 12th century. Their drawing power remains.
"I've been very impressed by the turnout, especially considering the reality of an outdoor setting, and the fact we're near a small lake, making it cooler, by the hour and the darkness and the seats on hay bales," Kalas said. "It's a really remarkable attendance."
The pastor said the season's conglomeration of emotions opens people up to feelings "they don't think about any other month of the year. Christmas is a sneak attack, like the first Christmas, when Jesus' birth occurred quietly, unnoticed by most of the world. It's the same kind of thing that happens at Christmas - quietly and unassumingly God is at work.
"I see the narration of the Christmas story as a real privilege for me because it's my responsibility to give voice to the Gospel. There's always that possibility - because God is mysterious - some people will hear it for the millionth time but through something in the story, the grace of God will penetrate."
Read more in the Dec. 3, 2009 e-edition of Weekender Turn to page 8.