Some say only cold temperatures put them in the Christmas spirit, but for those who visited “A Night in Bethlehem” and its live nativity at the First Presbyterian Church in Morris Sunday evening, the mild temperatures might actually have given them a more realistic experience of what the first Christmas was like.
“We had unbelievable weather,” said Cheryl Roth, one of the organizers of the event. “That has really been a big positive to us. We’re used to the snow and the cold this time of year. This is a gift to us.”
Roth said it did occur to her that the weather might have been very similar, although not as damp, as the night Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
This is the third time the church has put on the event. It was last done in 2009.
The event was described as a “hands-on Holy Land experience.” There was a live outdoor nativity with Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus, shepherds, a donkey, a pony, a sheep and two small lambs.
About 60 children and 50 adults had pre-registered, Roth said, but more came to watch and participate.
“It takes you back in time to the night of Jesus’ birth,” Roth said. “It’s our gift to the community.”
“We wanted to share the message and remind people of the true meaning of Christmas,” church member and event volunteer Robyn Mitchell said.
Inside, the basement of the church had been transformed into the town of Bethlehem. There was a basket maker, a woman who made beaded jewelry, a riverside in which to catch fish, a typical Jewish home, and more.
Alicia Castillo, 7, and her sister, Adriana, 5, from Morris, walked through the downstairs town, learning how to make jewelry and participating in the other tents’ activities.
“It’s fun,” Alicia said. “The donkeys were really soft.”
Josie Bennett-Roth, 6, of Seneca, said she was having a good time catching paper fish in one of the exhibits. She even cast the line like a pro. Earlier that evening, she had volunteered as a shepherd, taking care of the dogs in the nativity scene.
The animals were brought in by Tobi Staudacher from her family’s business Staudacher Farms in Yorkville.
“We started about five years ago,” she said. “We’re doing six this year, and we did four last year.”
Staudacher said they began setting up live nativity scenes when her church, Cross Lutheran, wanted to do one for its daycare. The family had the donkeys already and got together some more animals to add to the scene. Churches can also allow visitors to pet the animals, and children are allowed inside the bales-of-hay walls to sit with them and pet the lambs and other animals.
“Everybody really likes it,” she said. “A lot of people don’t see something like this very often. . . It’s nice being able to bring the real part of Christmas to people, and it’s kind of magical seeing it this way, at night. It’s better than just seeing it in a picture.”
Staudacher said she was happy to have the baby lambs to bring. She doesn’t have them every year at the holidays. Lambs are usually born at a different time in the year.
White Oak Elementary student Simone Stevens was one of the volunteers in the masonry shop in the mock Bethlehem. She had fashioned a rectangular brick made of clay and dirt and grass and explained to visitors how the town’s residents built their homes.
“Some of the bricks were made out of manure,” she added.
Kids also enjoyed building their own small home out of boxes in the masonry shop.
Church member and volunteer Sue Morse made baskets in the room that was set up to resemble a typical Jewish home during that era. There was a fireplace with bread baking above it, a mezuzah nailed to the door, and a table set with a variety of Middle Eastern treats, such as fresh dates.
“The Jewish home would have been open to everybody,” Morse said. “It was important to them to make people feel welcome so they would stay and talk over things. . . I think it’s important for kids to see how people lived back then.”