A living gift of Christmas
For Christians, December is the holiest of months. For others, it's the start of the holiday season and celebrations for many faiths.
For many in the Lowcountry, their season officially starts with the Bethany UMC Living Christmas Story.
In its 19th year, the church gives the event to the community at no charge, as its Christmas gift.
While it all began 2013 years ago in Bethlehem, it began here, in 1995 when then Minister of Christian Education, Ruth Ann Ivey, thought it might be nice to have a living nativity. Her thoughts were moderate…perhaps a manger scene with live animals, Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus…so they earmarked a small amount of money in the church budget for it.
Then she went to a gathering of the South Carolina Christian Educators Fellowship in Columbia and got into a conversation with someone from the Irmo UMC who described the extensive living nativity in Irmo.
Ivey came back to Summerville, shared what she learned with her tiny committee, which embraced the idea and began working on it.
The path was not without some bumps, she says.
“We had some opposition…'there is no budget for this'…it was going to cost about $7,500.”
“We said we would ask for donations, and we did, and raised $8,000 by the September deadline they [church elders] had given us.”
The financial problem was solved but now they only had three months to build 19 sets, create some 200 plus costumes, find animals, recruit volunteers. But one of the tenets of the church is giving…time, talents, treasures…says Patrick Wylie, chair of the LCS committee for the past two years. So many, many people came together to make this happen and give the gift to the community.
Somehow they managed to pull it all together that first year, says Ivey.
“We set up 25 sewing machines in the fellowship hall and went to work. Hundreds of costumes later [actually 2,000], there were rack after rack of clothing for villagers, Roman soldiers, shepherds, kings and children and table after table of sandals, head scarves and other costume bits and pieces.”
One member of the congregation, Ivey continues, “does Styrofoam construction stuff and he was a tremendous help.”
The early LCS productions had 15 scenes. It has since grown to 19 scenes.
“We made lots of phone calls,” says Ivey, “put in in the newsletters and recruited at Sunday School” in order to get the 200-plus performers to enact each of the events – two per night for three nights.
They rented lighting and sound equipment. They dressed the sets with both donated and purchased items. They spread straw and pine straw throughout. Windows to the church buildings were covered.
Darkness fell, the lights came up and the miraculous transformation of the Bethany UMC parking areas took place.
Bethlehem rose from the asphalt…Herod's court, the city gate, the synagogue, the carpenter's house, the blacksmith's, the well, the net menders, Roman guards on horseback, the Angel Gabriel, the market place, the sheep, the goats, the donkeys, the inn, the stable, the crèche, the child.
Ivey, who retired six years ago, still keep her hand in the annual event. Her daughter and grandsons participate and one of her sons-in-law is in charge of the Roman Soldiers.
“They call me an advisor,” she laughs as she walks through the “town of Bethlehem.”
Ivey says the committee that is responsible for the LCS, starts meeting in July or August and meets right up to the December opening. The chair of the committee oversees the production. In the beginning, says Ivey, it was Deb Wilson.
She chuckles and says the reaction to that first year was very positive.
Even the naysayers became believers.
“The community feedback is so positive,” she says. “Some people say it is how they begin their holiday season and others say they look forward to it every year.”
Only once, in 18 years, she says, have they had to cancel a night because of rain.
Thanks to the foresight and wisdom of Ivey and her committee, in the years since this began, costumes and sets are already constructed. They live most of the year in storage in a number of buildings.
The sets are simply put together a bit like puzzle pieces. Live plants are brought in, lights and sound are wired, backdrops are hung, windows blacked out, costumes unpacked and straw and sand spread. In just a week.
“We get the animals each year from Party Animals,” says Wylie. “We always have sheep, goats and donkeys and sometimes we get a cow. We never know!”
Wylie says each year they see between 5,000 and 7,000 visitors. “We have had well over 100,000 people through here since it began,” he says, excusing himself to answer his cell phone with a “Downtown Bethlehem!”
However, once Thursday comes there will be nary a cell phone in sight. Nor will there be eyeglasses, makeup, jewelry, socks or jeans.
Everyone on the Bethlehem set must be true to time period. They may wear flesh colored stockings if it is cold out.
“We have participants from all over,” says Wylie. “Folks from other churches, not just ours.”
Today's sub-committees include a secretary/treasurer, animals, casting, costumes, children's ministry, food, greeters, outreach, plants, props, publicity, security, sets, technical, lighting, sound, scene coordinators, traffic and trams.
Sign-ups for performance slots begin in October. Becky Wylie is overseeing that this year. She is stressed, she says.
However, the Bethany UMC minister, Dr. Bob Howell, tells them “don't worry, they will come.”
And every year, say the Wylies, they do come and all the slots are filled.
“This year,” says Becky Wylie, “we have more signed up ahead than every before.”
These days, some of the volunteers are for security. The security guards volunteer for various patrol shifts throughout the night.
During the performances, Summerville Police Department manages traffic flow. They expect about 2,000 visitors per night. Visitors can either, drive through the exhibit or park and take one of the trams. No one is allowed in on foot.
And keep an eye out for a villager in green. That will be Ruth Ann Ivey.