Utah's live Nativities bring a little taste of Bethlehem
Margaret Pearce had been alive for only nine days when she landed the role of a lifetime: baby Jesus.
She played it like a pro, slumbering angel-like in a manger Wednesday night, heavily swaddled to protect her against the December chill.
"We just knew we would probably never have a baby at this time [again] and get asked again," said Margaret's mom, Molly Pearce, 30, of Salt Lake City, playing Mary, "so we had to do it."
Then, just 45 minutes after Margaret took her star turn, it was all over time for a second Baby Jesus, Joseph and Mary to take a shift. Margaret was, after all, one of four newborns that night who played the infant Savior in the live, interfaith Nativity production that has grown into an elaborate showcase, drawing thousands each year.
It's hardly unusual this time of year for otherwise modern churchgoers to transform themselves into robed shepherds, gift-bearing wise men and the holy family for live Nativity scenes re-enactments of events that the Bible says transpired more than 2,000 years ago when Jesus Christ was born.
The Draper River View LDS Stake staged such a re-creation over four days at the end of November, and the one in east Salt Lake City's Bonneville Glen each December has become a tradition for hundreds of families.
More than 100 people, mostly from nearby east-bench neighborhoods, get involved in the Glen show, dressing as ancient shepherds, Bethlehem townspeople and working behind the scenes on lighting, sound and setup.
Choirs belt out holiday tunes as visitors wind their way along candlelit paths near gurgling Red Butte Creek. Guests pass through a mini-Bethlehem (complete with hot chocolate) before moving on to the Nativity, where an audio track tells the familiar tale, and then up through the hills of the glen, past more shepherds with animals.
Animals are ubiquitous throughout the scenes. Shepherds tend to a real flock on a hill above the Nativity. A live donkey turns restlessly in a stall near the holy family. And a real camel, resting on its haunches, greets visitors near the faux village. A nearby handler sits under a sign that reads, "Toucheth not the camel."
This year, the one-night event attracted about 4,700 people despite little advertising, said Jenny Asay, director of costuming and casting.
"We've tried to make it have a real feel of authenticity to it while at the same time make it simple," said Brian King, a coordinator of the event with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Bonneville LDS Stake and a state lawmaker. "The physical surroundings are really conducive to having it be set off from the rest of the world and the neighborhood. It's not like you have houses and streetlights around. You can kind of detach yourself from our modern world and see what it might have felt like then."
Plus, the event is interfaith. Since 2004, several area churches including Bonneville LDS Stake and the First Baptist Church of Salt Lake City have united to produce it. In past years, other churches have also been involved, including Wasatch Presbyterian Church; St. Ambrose Catholic Church; and Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, Asay said.
The ecumenical alliances are not lost on the visitors, who also come from a number of faiths and neighborhoods.
"We wouldn't miss it," said Judy Eror, of Salt Lake City's Avenues, who visited the Nativity with her grandchildren, mother and daughter. "You get a very strong feeling of community lots of different faiths ... all working together, celebrating things we have in common."
For nine years, the show has been a hit with people of all ages. Grandparents accompany their grandkids, who eagerly await their turns to pet the goats.
At mini-Bethlehem, 18-year-old Oliver Taggart, playing a merchant, asked a little girl Wednesday if she had anything she'd like to barter for his live chickens. She offered her coat.
"I've got a robe," Taggart, of the Bonneville Stake, joked back, "why would I need a coat?"
Throughout the night, a number of children walked past the live Nativity uttering the same question, "Is that a real baby?"
"Our kids were like, 'It's a doll,' " Bountiful resident Annalie Frei said as she admired the holy family. "We were like, 'No, it's a real baby.' "
But the event isn't just entertainment for kids. Utahns from Salt Lake City and beyond return each year for something more intangible: the feeling they get.
"It's a way for everyone to get together and do something exciting for the holiday season," said Avenue resident Jeremy Cummings, who attended with his children, wife and friends, "something different."
This year, married couples Kim and Bryan Fong and David and Susan Taggart (Oliver's parents) dressed as shepherds and sang Christmas carols to those waiting to get into the event. Lines stretched for several blocks.
The couples have been participating in the live Nativity for almost as long as it's been around.
"It kind of reminds people what we're celebrating," David Fong said, "why we're celebrating."
To view more photos from the live Nativities in east Salt Lake City and Draper, go to http://www.sltrib.com.