Finding a faux snow- and candy cane-filled homage to Santa Claus is easy; just look at your local mall for the line snaking around the giant Christmas tree. Honing in on an experience that makes as much of the Christmas story — the story of the birth of Jesus — is another matter.
Enter the good people at St. Luke Lutheran Church in Mesa, who have been busy since summer organizing A Night In Bethlehem, a Dec. 20 affair that one could liken to the Arizona Renaissance Festival — but on a much smaller scale and themed around the first-century town of Christ’s birth instead of Elizabethan England. About 600 people stopped by last year.
“You’ll feel like you’re walking into Bethlehem. We’ll have a well in the center of the village, where people gathered at that time, and there will be people walking the town to interact with. You really feel pulled into that time period,” says Kim Cramer, who helps put together about 80 costumes for the affair.
Don Smith, who’s helped with the event since it started six or seven years ago, says it takes a crew of about 100, and that doesn’t include volunteers helping set up, tear down and bake cookies. Church members have donated money to help fund the event, but no donations are accepted that evening.
Nor do volunteers preach to visitors, says Hennings.
“We do want the story of Mary and Joseph and Jesus to be a part of the experience; we think this is an important and true story. It’s great news for people, and we want to help make it real for them and maybe make it so they start to think about what this story means,” he says. “It’s our gift to the community to help them discover the true meaning of Christmas.”
The evening begins in the church parking lot, where fully outfitted Roman soldiers direct visitors to the city.
“The entrance to the town is where you register in the census, just as Joseph and Mary had to register when they arrived in Bethlehem,” says Rev. Luke Hennings, pastor of the 52-year-old church on Stapley Drive near East Eighth Street.
From there, visitors can wander the village, visiting woodworking, weaving, spice, leather and pottery shops. Shopkeepers in robes and sashes will help children with a variety of activities and make-and-take crafts.
“There’s a lot of hustle and bustle, a lot of energy,” says Cramer. “People in the shops take on names of the period, and townspeople talk with visitors.”
There are live animals, like pigs, goats and rabbits, for children to pet, and a music area houses a variety of instruments, like cymbals and tambourines, that kids can play.
Somewhere in the village, visitors will find Mary and Joseph with the Christ child, who lead organizer Don Smith says is usually played by a doll because nighttime temperatures are often too cold to keep a real baby out so long.
Other attractions include cookies and hot chocolate and a photo shop, where visitors can don optional costumes and props provided by the church. A free photo is emailed to visitors at no charge a few days later.
IF YOU GO
What: A Night in Bethlehem, a live re-creation of the first-century town the night Jesus Christ was born
When: 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 20
Where: St. Luke Lutheran Church, 807 N. Stapely Drive, Mesa
Cost: Free admission and parking
Information: (480) 969-4414 or StLukeMesa.com