For most of the year, the little village in the churchyard is quiet and empty, but in a few days it will be full of life. Camels will jostle and groan in the feed lot, bakers will pull flat rounds of bread out of their ovens and blacksmiths will fire up their forge to hammer out the useful products of their fiery art. Census takers will set up shop, checking off all those who return to their ancestral home for the mandated count. A brilliant star will guide travelers from the hills to the east and valley to the west.
This is Bethlehem, the biblical village that comes alive each year thanks to the people of Hebron Baptist Church and their friends and neighbors in Afton and beyond. Since the turn of the century, when the congregation first conceived of a live nativity, the operation has grown in size and scope. It takes more than 100 people to make it happen, said Connie Miller, the church’s historian.
It’s a labor of love, a serious endeavor for the people of the church, taking year-round attention. This year, for example, they’ve resurrected an old forge and several men took blacksmithing lessons to bend iron in the Bethlehem foundry. Others have researched period dress and created the simple clothes of the working-class shepherds, carpenters and bakers, and the more elaborate robes of foreign royalty. On the evenings of the tours, bakers pound real flour into real loaves of bread and bake them in real ovens for hungry visitors.
Some of the skills have been learned on the job, Miller said, including the rugged job of camel-tending that’s become the yearly assignment of a few brave souls. “It’s not so easy,” Miller admitted. “Camels are sometimes temperamental, and also they drool, which is unpleasant when it’s cold to begin with and the men get soaked.” Other volunteers clean up the town after the sheep and goats, not to mention the thousands of visitors who throng through the narrow streets.
Over the years, the organizers have refined some elements in response to the growing number of people who visit, perhaps 8,000 in the short season. There’s a hospitality tent where folks can warm up while waiting and munch on fig cookies; and the manger itself is now elevated so everyone has a view. When she’s volunteering in the hospitality tent, Miller always cautions people to take their time exploring Bethlehem. “Something happens here,” she said. “That’s the whole point. If you wait a while, you’ll see it.”
Something does happen, about every half-hour or so. A young couple arrives to comply with the census, approaches the inn, and are turned away. They climb the hill, past the forge and the bakery and the sheep to a small stable. There’s a lull, and then shepherds run through the streets, a robed choir appears on a lighted platform that’s been unnoticed before, exotic strangers offer gifts to a baby, and song fills the night.
People are so moved by seeing the nativity in its historical context that they return year after year, from all over the country, Miller said. The church welcomes everyone: “Last year, I personally gave a tour to an unbeliever,” Miller said. “You don’t have to be a Baptist from Afton to recognize that there’s something deep and meaningful here.”
Tours of the village, at 66 Tanbark Road in Afton, are December 15 to 19 from 6 to 9 pm. Tours in Spanish are offered on Sunday, December 17, at 7 p.m.