Bethlehem Village, a depiction of the birthplace of Christ, drew thousands to Hebron Church in Afton last month as 50 dedicated volunteers acted out a living crèche scene and recounted the Gospel story of the Nativity.
The village, now a cluster of 10 permanent structures in the rear of the church, has been a ministry of five Rockfish Valley churches for 14 years. Last year it was not held, but it came back strong this season after volunteers said they missed it.
The village opened after dark. A blue shaft of light from a spotlight behind the manger building, a sort of pavilion, was aimed toward heaven. People coming from the Valley said they saw it as soon as they crossed Rockfish Gap and they followed it to the church.
Entrance to the Village was free and everyone was given a plastic coin as he or she came in. Visitors first encountered Roman soldiers who collected those coins as tax and then they “signed-in” at a census-taker’s tent. The list showed that people came from as far as Staunton, Harrisonburg, Charlottesville and Lynchburg.
Singing angels guided visitors through the village, which included a handful of sheep with shepherds and two well-kept camels on loan from the Natural Bridge Zoo. Warming fires burned along the way to the Inn, the olive press and the scribe’s tent. Volunteers stay in character all night and they pride themselves on it.
The central skit is performed about every half-hour. The Magi came through the village and approached the manger, where one told the story of Jesus’s birth. Then Mary and Joseph (played by Chara Truslow and Sebastian Lopez) left their throne-like seat in the manger and carried a bundle suggesting a baby around for the visitors to get a closer look at. Led by the choir of angels, the crowd sang along with Christmas carols.
“It’s become a Christmas tradition,” said Ken Bryant, a member of Hebron. “We say, ‘Come find your place in the Christmas story.’ We’re Christians. We’re trying to steal a little bit away from the commercialization.
“It’s like Bethlehem done Williamsburg. People think, ‘Oh, it’s a creche scene.’ But we take it up a notch. The bar is set pretty high and we don’t want to disappoint anyone who comes.
“We skipped and everybody was thinking ‘something is missing’. It’s part of Christmas now and we take it personal. It will keep going without question.
“You get first-time people and you get ones who come every year. One lady brought her entire family, her kids and her grandkids, 13 people. She wanted them to see it.
“This Bethlehem is one of the oldest in the U.S.,” said Bryant. “A former pastor of ours was inspired by a miniature Nativity set.
“The first year we got 2,500 visitors. We thought, ‘That’s great.’ Now it’s taken on a life of its own. Seeing the young families out is what gets me. Just letting them see it. It can stick with them.” Bryant said he expected attendance to be about 9,000 in 2014. More than 100,000 have seen it since 1999.
One Sunday tour is given in Spanish and Bryant said it gets a “good turnout.”