First of all - Happy Nashville Anniversary to us! It's been one month since we left Toronto to start our Nashville adventure! Whoo-hoo! A lot has happened, and we're just loving every day of being here.
But yesterday, I was homesick!
10 years ago, Dad came to me, and several other people in the parish, with an idea: What if we told the story of the Nativity in the churchyard, outside... in December! He had this idea that we would put stages up, each with a different scene from the Christmas story, and the audience would walk through and see each scene, ending with the Holy Family. I was brought on as co-writer and director, sets were built, 50 actors and singers were cast, and the first staging of THE REAL CHRISTMAS STORY magically appeared. Now, 10 years later, we have performed that play for over 5000 audience members, and the 2 years it appeared on Vision TV, it played for an audience of over 60,000 people. All of this, from my Dad.
Yesterday was this year’s show. We’ve all been praying for good weather, and in the morning, Dad called to tell me it was 2C and sunny - just perfect. I got an update last night, and even today, they’re continuing to send me stories of actors who pushed through illness to take part, and audience members who have come each of the 10 years.
I’m so thrilled that this ministry has been a source of joy for so many people. I hope it continues long after we’re gone from the parish. But for this weekend, it all just makes me a little homesick, and wishing I was there to say, “Welcome to Bethlehem!”.
So, today, I decided to do some Christmasy stuff to lift my spirits. I had seen signs for something called “Walk Thru Bethlehem”, and thought this would be the right choice.
It takes place each year at Woodmont Christian Church, and, like our play, it is put on by the church to reach out into the community at large. It runs 1:00pm - 7:00pm, and you can go at any time to ‘walk thru’. When I arrived there were literally hundreds of people lined up right around the parking lot. It was a warm night (10C after dark!), which was a blessing cause the wait was about 40 minutes. The big difference between this and our show is that this is NOT a play. It is an event, a happening, a truly interactive experience.
Every once in a while, a Centurion soldier would walk past to keep the line in order. I heard parents whispering warnings to their children that the soldiers were looking for little boys under the age of 2, so they’d better behave. (Don’t know if that’s really in the Christmas spirit...) As the line snaked around, I noticed they had a large wood fire burning on the little hill by the building. I thought, “How nice and charming. It will keep people warm.” But this fire wasn’t for us; it was for the shepherds. How do I know this? Because next thing I saw was the sheep! That’s right - sheep! Half a dozen sheep, roaming the hillside. Actually, they were tethered on, but in the dark, you couldn’t see that, and they just looked like they were roaming. Crazy! There were kids all over the hill, petting the sheep and getting close to the fire. Every once in a while, a light would shine from one of the lower roofs on the building, and an angel would appear to the shepherds. A recorded voice-over would read the angel’s announcement from the Bible, and the angel would stand out there in blazing white glory. It was so awesome!
The event proper was inside. When you arrived at the door, the first thing you did was register for the census. Everyone had to fill out a census card with the number of people in your family and from whence you had traveled. Then, we were greeted by a citizen of Bethlehem who told us the political climate of the day, and how excited they all were that the census had brought us here. He invited us to wander freely in Bethlehem and to enjoy our time here. At this point, I still didn’t know it wasn’t a play, so I was all geared up for a good show. I had no idea what awaited me...
Around the corner, we saw the grain and fish vendors from the market. I thought, “O dear, is this whole thing going to be something we just look at and walk past?”. Then, they offered us samples of nuts, and dates, and fish. What???
A huge door opened up, and we entered the marketplace of Bethlehem. And I’m serious - We were in Bethlehem, first century. The floors had been covered in layers of mulch, so you felt the earth under your feet. The walls and ceilings were draped in burlap and cloth. Every where you looked, you saw a beautiful detail that spun you back in time. And everything was interactive!
First, I saw the Village Oven, where they were grinding grain with this rotating stone. You could help them make the flour and the dough, and a few steps down the line, you could taste the bread. You could watch the carpenters building house-hold items, and the sellers trying to tempt you with brass knick-knacks and ‘real gold’ jewelry. The weaver informed us that the sheep we saw outside belonged to her family, and that the shepherds were their husbands. She told how they would collect and spin the wool, and how they would die it with ginger and figs and pomegranates. She made bracelets and gave them to the children.
There was a well in the middle of the market, so water was accessible to everyone. A man with a recorder walked about playing beautiful melodies. A special room housed a storyteller who told legends to the children. There was a booth were we could “buy” doves and sheep for our sacrifices. And then, we could enter the Synagogue. It was full of artifacts, and write-ups explaining their use in worship and education. This was the only place in the market that didn’t have a mulch floor. It was covered in rich carpets.
There was a place where the children could make rag dolls, and even if you didn’t make one, they would just give you one. (Mine is blue!) I dropped by the Physician’s tent to see what they were all about. A healer asked if I had any ailments. When I mentioned I’d had a headache last week, she grabbed my hands and taught me an acupressure technique. I listened in for a bit, and whatever people mentioned was their ailment, they had an oil or herb or technique to heal it!
The Tent Maker explained how the goat wool sheets were light and airy so your tent would keep out the sun and the heat, but that when it rained, the goat wool would expand to keep out the water. The Basket Weaver was twisting reeds to make bracelets for everyone to wear. At the Food Tasting booth, we could try matzos in honey, spiced tea (amazing!) and sesame cookies.
Not a detail was missed in this market. Tables were filled to overflowing with wares and supplies. People greeted you with “Shalom”. The lighting was soft, and the pathways were crowded with people, and lined with palm trees. This was not a museum piece - Every spot was filled with the tastes and smells and sounds of a busy marketplace.
It was even appropriately messy. At the wine press, they had an huge barrel filled with grapes, and on top of the grapes was a bare-footed child, squishing the grapes with his feet. (And no, they let us taste fresh grapes, not wine.) At the Potter’s booth, you could watch him work the wheel, and then you could grab a hunk of clay and make something yourself. And then there was the Olive Press. It was 5 feet high by 3 feet wide and made of stone. There was a central tub filled with olives and a large stone that could be rolled through the olives using a large wooden handle. Three children were working the press and explaining the process. They were up to their elbows in olive oil, and the smell penetrated the air.
At this point, I chose to leave the marketplace, and go outside to the Stable. There, I saw Mary and Joseph and the baby (which I think was a doll). The Magi were there, and they would let you touch and smell the frankincense and myrrh. No free gold samples, unfortunately. And there were more animals! This time, it was sheep, goats, a long-haired ox, and ... wait for it... a camel!
What an incredible experience! It’s very different than our show, but it is truly unique, and a great way to touch on the world as Jesus may have seen it.
I felt very inspired and Christmasy at the end of the day. After the show, I bought a wreath for my car. Tis the season...