Light, animals, action

Church creates buzz with live Nativity, one local event heralding the holidays

December 24, 2006|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

From their home across a busy Bel Air highway, Chris Daneker and Cheryl Smith watched through the day as parishioners at St. Matthew Lutheran Church set up the scenery for a live Nativity.

The props were as simple as a bright star mounted high on a light pole and canvas tents that represented a young girl's room, an inn and a stable with a straw-filled manger.

At nightfall, the couple from across the street joined hundreds who made their way past seven unpretentious tableaus depicting events that culminated with the birth of Christ.

"Imagine a cold desert night in the Mideast with me," the narrator said at the beginning of the church's "Journey to Bethlehem." Walkers were undeterred by the backdrop of constant traffic during the trek along the church's parking lot.

A narrator, carrying a torch, quoted Scripture, spoke of Christmas traditions and encouraged visitors to sing carols.

"It really brings Christmas home to you," Daneker said. "This is the first live Nativity that I have ever seen."

Smith agreed. "Why stay at home and watch Christmas shows on TV," she asked, "when you can walk across the street and see the real thing?"

St. Matthew was one of many Harford County churches, schools and community groups that helped the extended community usher in the holiday season.

Oak Grove Baptist Church's choir performed a dozen concerts in a 40-foot-tall artificial Christmas tree. Student actors revamped a traditional Dickens tale and staged it in Bel Air's refurbished armory. The Harford Dance Theatre presented The Nutcracker, and the Historical Society's annual tea was sold out.

But the event at St. Matthew, which sits on a hill overlooking Route 22, stopped traffic.

Kathy Lang, who played a mother shepherd to several children in the hillside scene, saw at least one fender-bender. The blur of headlights and the sound of car horns created an odd background for a biblical tale, she said.

"We are definitely competing with traffic," she said. "But some people have seen us and stopped. It's a strange juxtaposition, but we are spreading holiday cheer, the good kind."

The church staged its first live Nativity last year for about 100 visitors. Members opted to expand on the theme this year, adding more scenes, more characters and even a few animals. The pastor nixed camels, but welcomed the Sedney family's offer of goats and sheep from their Forest Hill farm. The livestock grazed on hay next to the manger.

"We wanted to tell the Christmas story in stages so that people could see it unfold from the angel's announcement to Mary to the birth in Bethlehem," said the Rev. David Kehret.

Matthew Wanzer, 16, wrote the script and encouraged his younger brother Nick, 13, his father, Dennis, a youth minister, and about 20 others from the church to participate.

"Maybe, through this, kids will come to know the true meaning of Christmas," Dennis Wanzer said. "Things today are getting way too commercialized."

The narrator wove a few Christmas facts into the dialogue, such as the cost of a tree in 1941 (75 cents). Ten years later, President Harry S. Truman prayed for peace before a live Nativity and then lit the national tree, she said.

"Live Nativities used to be everywhere in Baltimore City, when I grew up," said Joanne Johnson, adding she hoped the practice was coming back.

Many children walked with parents and grandparents.

"It is important to bring children so they can learn what Christmas is all about," said Marie Berger, with her granddaughter Jaden Morton, 4. "I read this story to her all the time."

Inside the church hall, parishioners offered guests warm cocoa and freshly baked cookies. A bell choir and the church's dance ministry performed. And the youngest children were invited to the craft room to make presents.

A few stand-ins rotated into the scenes to allow the lead players a break from the cold. But Tyler Burns, 14, played one of the Magi through the night, all while wearing a paper crown recognized by many young children. It was a giveaway from a fast-food restaurant, Tyler admitted.

"Hey," he said. "It gets people to come to church."

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