In the busyness of the holidays, take time to imagine what Bethlehem might have been like the night Jesus was born, as if you were a traveler on a special journey through this tiny Judean village. Shopkeepers in the marketplace invite you to sample their wares; the village storyteller eagerly shares stories of the people, their history, and faith; and among the villagers, almost like a whisper, drift the rumors of angels, shepherds, and the birth of a special baby.
Creating a “Walk Through Bethlehem” has been an annual event for Church Street United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., for fifteen years. Hundreds of volunteers participate in the interactive five-hour event, from the four days of creating the village, to working the day of the event either as a costumed character or a greeter, to the fast and furious one day clean-up that follows. For many who participate, Walk Through Bethlehem has become as much a Christmas tradition as singing carols and lighting candles. Volunteers range in age from octogenarians to the infant who lies in the manger.
Set-up work begins five days before the event. Since most of the event takes place in the church’s fellowship hall, the transformation begins to conceal any evidence that we exist in the twenty-first century. Ceilings are covered with greenhouse shade cloth then laced with thousands of clear twinkling lights to give the illusion of evening. Windows are covered with black plastic and the floor with roofing felt in preparation for the truckloads of wood chips that will be spread in every inch of the room. Walls are covered with canvas, artificial stone, or cloth. Bales of hay define the stable, and shops made from PVC pipe, freestanding wooden structures, tents, and tables create the path guests travel on their visit.
Authenticity is a hallmark of this event. Research has been done to provide guests with accurate information on the Bethlehem of Jesus’ time. Those who volunteer to wear a costume are educated about biblical Bethlehem and are instructed in creating their characters as well as in the activity they will be leading. No watches, jewelry, sneakers, or cell phones are allowed for costumed characters, and quality control monitors are present to remind workers in case something is overlooked.
Unlike other community events, Walk Through Bethlehem invites guests to be part of the story. It is not a play or an event where you simply observe a tableau. Guests are encouraged to register for the census, worship in the synagogue, and engage shopkeepers in conversation. Roman soldiers keep a stern watch on the villagers and wealthy foreign travelers carrying precious gifts. Shepherds eagerly share their story of seeing angels as they invite you to pet their sheep and goats. And as guests move toward the exit, an innkeeper cautions them to keep moving, that the inn is full for the night. Only the most observant traveler will notice that behind the inn, nestled in a cave-like structure, is a family with a newborn baby.
When Church Street’s “Walk” began in 1997 it was done simply and with minimal expense. The budget for the first year was only a few thousand dollars to cover an initial outlay for costumes, materials and props. Many items are used year after year. Initially, the live animals that are part of the experience were provided by people in the congregation, but as those people moved or died, we now draw on a local exotic animal ranch for camels and other animals. This has added to the cost of the event, but it is worth it as this feature is the main draw for children.
As the event has grown and more improvements have been made, the sets have expanded, and the expendable items used in the three interactive shops increased the event budget to at least $5000 each year for the event to take place. A donation “well” is centered in the middle of the marketplace and all contributions go toward producing the event the following year.
In the eyes of many, Walk Through Bethlehem is a costly production. It requires the commitment of an entire church in the space required and the number of volunteers needed. But the rewards are indescribable. Thousands of people continue to attend the event at Church Street each December. For many it is part of their holiday tradition, emphasizing the religious dimension of the celebration instead of the secular. Others are simply curious about what might be attracting such a crowd in downtown Knoxville.
But for those who offer this special event as an annual gift to the community, the privilege of witnessing to their faith sometimes sneaks into the darkened room among the wood chips. One such time was when a family entered the marketplace and, in broken English, asked a shopkeeper, “Who is this Jesus you celebrate?” The wise woman stepped out of character for a moment and shared the story of her Lord and her faith.
Christmas doesn’t get any better than that!