Live Nativity scenes are labors of love in Shelby County

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Much planning, staging and coordination are required to create a live Nativity scene. The organizers and participants are deeply vested in their message.

By Lisa King

Dressed in a softly flowing robe, surrounded by contented sheep and goats and even a donkey, a shepherd paused to contemplate the animals surrounding the manger before pulling a small device out of a pocket.

“Bet you never saw a shepherd with an iPhone before,” he said with a grin, as he snapped a photo of the scene.

Steve Price coordinated that live Nativity scene that was held Tuesday at the Community Christmas event held at Shelby Industries, at the request of the plant, he said.

“Wayne [Allen, vice president of Shelby Industries] asked us to do this,” Price said. “He said it’s what it’s all about.”

Live Nativity presentations such as this are not commonplace these days, but tonight and Saturday night Simpsonville Baptist Church will continue the recreation of the scene depicting the birth of Jesus.

Organizers say the reason live Nativities are rare is because they're so much work to stage, something that isn't apparent just from admiring the wondrous and reverend performances by non-actors and animals.

"The first three years, we didn't have a very large crowd because it took us that long to come up with the backdrop, and then you have to have all the different costumes for each person who is participating, and it took a lot of time to put all that together," said Dale Kramer, a member of Simpsonville Baptist Church who coordinates the event along with his wife, Sharon.

Also, participants have to brave the cold weather, something observed by Price and David Merchant, members of Burks Branch Baptist Church who worked together at the Community Christmas event.

That was the reason the scene didn't include someone depicting the Virgin Mary, Price said.

"My wife had a cold, and my three-year-old granddaughter dressed up and said she was Mary, but it was too cold for her, so we were short-staffed," he said. "So we just get whoever we can to come; it just depends on how their health is and who's available."

Kramer said he tries to have enough people involved so that they can take turns.

"It's cold, so we try to rotate people so they're only out for thirty minutes and then they go back in and get something to eat and warm up and come back out," he said.

Then there are times when the weather is not as bad, like last year at Shelbyville's Celebration of Lights, when Price, who is evangelism mission's team leader for the Shelby County Baptist Association, held a live Nativity in the parking lot of Operation Care on Main Street.

"We had a lot of kids come up and pet the animals, and Jeff and Jennifer Peed were Mary and Joseph," he said.

Jeff Peed, pastor of Buffalo Lick Baptist Church, said that he and his wife enjoy participating in live Nativity scenes, something they started doing when they were members of Highland Baptist Church back in the 1990s.

"The reason we like to do them is to try to get more people involved in our local churches," he said.

Jennifer Peed said she agreed, recalling last year's event at Celebration of Lights and how, even though there was no precipitation, temperatures fell after dark.

"Just seeing the people's faces when they saw the live animals; it was great," she said. "We were very layered under our costumes, and we used a doll [for baby Jesus], and it was in the straw. The children would come up and ask a lot of questions. Mostly they were concerned that the baby was cold or [how] that it was being stuck by the straw."

Kramer said he is concerned about the weather forecast for this weekend.

"They're talking about really bad weather for Saturday, so we're making provisions for that," he said. "If it rains just a bit, we can handle it, but if it rains really hard, we may have to cancel it. If that happens, we could maybe do it Sunday morning before the service; it just depends on the weather."


Animal care

Many people who participate in live Nativities also provide the animals for the scene, a venture onto itself, they say.

Price said the first time he brought his donkey, Gunner, to be in a Nativity a few years ago, he did so with trepidation.

"I didn't know how he was going to act with all those people; I didn't know if he would try to run away or what," he said. "But he didn't act up at all; in fact, he liked it," Price added with a chuckle. "He liked it so well, I thought, 'Well, we can keep doing this,' so that's how we got started."

Eric Swisher, an insurance company owner who lives in Mount Eden and has a bevy of exotic animals, including a kangaroo, has been bringing his pet camel, Levi, to live Nativities, most recently at a church in Ballardsville two weeks ago. Swisher says he doesn't participate in the Nativities himself.

"I'll show up, and they'll have a spot for him, and I'll make sure they know what they're doing, and after that I either just stand around or stay in the truck, but I never leave him," he said.

Swisher said that Levi is difficult to transport, because he is bigger than a horse, but he said the 4-year-old camel loves the events.

"Levi is perfect," he said. "He will literally stand next to a stranger with a lead rope on for hours, and he won't move. But the thing is, he doesn't know he's a camel; he literally thinks he is a person – that's because I hand-raised him since he was a week old."

Kramer said that he always positions his characters in a certain order, not only to more prominently display the scene, but also to keep the animals in check.

"Mary and Joseph are in the center of the backdrop, three wisemen with gifts are in back and we have a couple of shepherds, one on each side, one taking care of the sheep, and one taking care of the donkeys, so they [animals] don't decide to get crazy and start running all over the place."


Why they do it

Yes, it’s all a lot of staging and planning and even patience. But those who create and participate in these holiday spectacles do so for what they see as the reason for the season.

"It's all about the message that it sends; that the reason for Christmas isn't all the hustle and bustle and everything that goes along with that," Kramer said. "We just want to bring light to what the season is really all about. That's why the church has nurtured it [live Nativity] to make it work."

That's why his event will be structured in such a manner as to produce the effect it deserves, he said.

"We'll have an angel there, and a star above the manger scene that will be lit up,” he said. “There'll be no singing, no music. The characters don't talk unless the children ask questions. The pastor will be there and we'll hand out candy canes. It's all very reverent.”

Said Price: "It's a good way to tell the Christmas story."

Peed said he believes that people need spiritual reinforcement at Christmas as much for emotional reasons as for spiritual ones.

"Christmas is a tough time for a lot of people because it reminds them of who they have lost," he said. "But we have to remember that, as Christians, we know we will see them again. We just want people to know that Jesus is where it's at."

Live Nativity

WHAT: Recreation of the manger scene for birth of Jesus

WHEN:6:30-8:30 p.m., today, Saturday

WHERE:Simpsonville Baptist Church, 7208 Shelbyville Road

MORE INFO:Call 502-722-9475