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Live nativity a tradition in Bethlehem for 50 years

Photo: Brendan Sullivan Members of Bethlehem First United Methodist Church the three wise men Federico Arriaga, Amy Watts and Brian Ford present baby Jesus with gold, frankincense and myrrh beside Jessica Smith as Mary, Steve Smith as Joseph during the 50th annual Live Nativity on the Square in Bethlehem on Saturday.

Photo: Brendan Sullivan Members of Bethlehem First United Methodist Church the three wise men Federico Arriaga, Amy Watts and Brian Ford present baby Jesus with gold, frankincense and myrrh beside Jessica Smith as Mary, Steve Smith as Joseph during the 50th annual Live Nativity on the Square in Bethlehem on Saturday.

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Photo: Brendan Sullivan Members of Bethlehem First United Methodist Church participate in the 50th annual Live Nativity on the Square in Bethlehem on Saturday.

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Photo: Brendan Sullivan Members of Bethlehem First United Methodist Church shepherds Rachael Howard, 10, and Christian Zahm, 12, listen to instructions by producer Janice Allen prior to the 50th annual Live Nativity on the Square in Bethlehem on Saturday.

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Photo: Brendan Sullivan Members of Bethlehem First United Methodist Church the three wise men Federico Arriaga, Amy Watts and Brian Ford present baby Jesus with gold, frankincense and myrrh beside Jessica Smith as Mary, Steve Smith as Joseph during the 50th annual Live Nativity on the Square in Bethlehem on Saturday.

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Photo: Brendan Sullivan Members of Bethlehem First United Methodist Church shepherds Carly Wingard, 11, Zoe Arriaga, 10, Christian Zahm, 12, stay warm around a fire while participating in the 50th annual Live Nativity on the Square in Bethlehem on Saturday.

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Photo: Brendan Sullivan Members of Bethlehem First United Methodist Church Jessica Smith as Mary assists her husband Steve Smith as Joseph with his head covering prior to the 50th annual Live Nativity on the Square in Bethlehem on Saturday. Steve Smith has been participating in the live nativity since he was 5-years-old.

LAWRENCEVILLE -- The Christmas pageant opens with "O Little Town of Bethlehem."

That's where we are. Thousands of miles from the Middle Eastern location of Christ's birth, but Bethlehem all the same. The tiny Georgia town, where angels and wise men have come for 50 years to celebrate the holiday by restaging the Biblical story.

Many generations have grown up with the annual event presented by Bethlehem First United Methodist Church, a congregation that pre-dates the town and is actually how the city got its name.

Janice Allen, who spent Saturday tending shepherds and cueing music as the anniversary show's producer, was an angel herself when the production began in 1962.

"It's not Christmas if we haven't done it," Allen said of the show, which will also be held at 7 and 8 p.m. tonight. "It's so people passing by know we are Bethlehem."

This year's Joseph, Steve Smith, grew up in the cast, playing a shepherd at the age of 5, while his sister was an angel and his dad took on another role.

Now, he and his wife Jessica portray the holy family.

"It's just part of Christmas, just like opening gifts on Christmas morning," Smith said. "Even in college, I was always here for Christmas and part of the pageant. It's just tradition."

Last year, they were even more authentic, with Jessica expecting a baby.

Through the years, there has been a mishap or two -- tiding angels falling off their perches above the stable, shepherds releasing embers from the fire, a donkey bray at an inopportune time.

Once, the show went on as snow fell, but thunder and lightning have caused cancellations. "I've seen it all," Smith joked while warming up between shows.

This year, the church had to work around road construction, which had backhoes and other machinery parked by the stable just days before the performance, and caused the men's group to build the set away from the city's star.

But by the time the crowd began showing up Saturday, the equipment was gone.

Despite the yearly hurdles, the time-honored tradition goes off without a hitch -- even without a rehearsal -- because the church members know their roles so well.

While the main stars of Jesus and Mary and the tiding angel are chosen in advance (baby Jesus is a doll, so that newborns aren't subjected to the cold), kids are welcome to participate without any preparation.

Allen said the leaders learned years ago that sign-ups are futile because some kids get sick and others have canceled plans that allow them to show up, so the church has dozens of angel and shepherd costumes and they just give them out until they run out.

With a few adult angels and shepherds to oversee the multitude, everything always works out just right.

"It can be three or it can be 15," Allen said. "There are people who have done it year after year, so you just say to follow her."

With a choir singing between the scriptures, the only speaking part belongs to the preacher. And there are a few nerves this year for associate pastor Adam Mathes, who will take the part for the first time Sunday from senior pastor Parker Benson.

But Allen expects a holy night, like the city has experienced every December for 50 years.

"I love tradition," Smith said. "I hope it stays here as long as it can."