For the faithful, living out the holidays doesn’t just mean celebrating with family and feasts. No, for some of the area’s religious communities, tradition means stepping back in time to embrace those first moments of unexpected light. Some congregations have years of experience re-creating those sacred symbols with starlight, candlelight and, OK, just a little bit of electric light. Others are just getting started.
Last night, Sunrise Chapel hosted the time traveling The Path to Bethlehem, a live, walk-through Nativity it has hosted for about 10 years. Next Sunday, in anticipation of Hanukkah beginning on Dec. 16, Temple Emanu-El will rekindle its own celebration with the lighting of menorahs.
And on Friday and Saturday, a new tradition flickers into its second year, complete with an angel choir, luminarias and the requisite baby-doll Jesus.
This Christmas, Redeemer Lutheran Church wants to bring Bethlehem to you.
And you don’t even have to get out of your car.
For the second year, Roman soldiers and luminarias will guide visiting cars through the Marana church’s drive-thru Nativity scene.
Beneath the twinkle of lights, angels sing, shepherds bow and Mary and Joseph trek from pregnancy to parenthood.
That is what a steady stream of motorists see during the two nights of the show.
Behind the scenes, this is a church that has served Tucson for more than 70 years in multiple locations. Starting a new tradition is no small thing.
It takes thousands of fliers, dozens of volunteers and some serious problem-solving to figure out how to stay biblically accurate — while keeping those toes toasty now that the weather for sandals has finally (finally!) passed.
It takes a village to create a village.
“We had ladies cooking dinner and people babysitting, and it was a very positive fellowship thing for our congregation,” says Tawnya Caldwell, the project organizer and a Marana Unified School District principal. “We try to keep to the Bible teaching of Jesus’ story and recreate those scenes exactly how it says. The paintings are beautiful, and the costumes — we had so many ladies sewing.”
Caldwell, 42, adopted the idea from her brother’s Phoenix-area church. She never attended the live Nativity there, but listened to the excitement of her sister-in-law each year. So she brought it to the church she has attended for nearly 20 years.
The church, with about 450 members according to Pastor Adam Mueller, began planning the 2013 Christmas season that summer.
The first year, several hundred vehicles, packed with families from the church and surrounding neighborhoods, made the journey through the church’s parking lot.
For two nights, cars cruised past scenes illustrating the biblical story of the birth of Jesus Christ. Over an unclaimed FM radio station, Mueller narrated each scene. Last year, he greeted cars at the end of the drive, decked out in the garb of a Roman soldier.
“The live Nativity gives us the chance to tell the core story of Jesus’ birth to the community,” Mueller says. “It galvanizes the congregation and creates a sense of unity, because people are involved from children to oldest ones.”
Even the kids who opted not to don shepherds’ or angels’ robes could participate. Departing cars received a flier for Christmas services along with a craft made by students from Redeemer Lutheran School.
The event has invigorated Redeemer Lutheran’s congregation, Mueller says. He started at the church in December 2012, stepping into a community that had undergone changes in leadership.
“This is something our congregation wants to do,” Caldwell says.
Setting up Bethlehem in Marana for two nights takes about 100 volunteers and costs roughly $1,500, says Jim Rockwell, 73, the church’s outreach and evangelism chairman.
And it starts early.
“I have been working on and off all summer,” says Irene Norby, 65, who has attended the church for eight years and worked with others on the costumes. “A cloth store would have a sale on upholstery material, which we wanted to use on the coats, and I went to yard sales with that in mind. I would see sheets or curtains, so I grabbed those up whenever I had some free time.”
The costumes come in multiples. Teams of Marys, Josephs and just about every other character tag each other out after an hour or two in the cold.
Jana Etzenhouser, 36, played Mary to her husband Scott’s Joseph last year. As the cars drove by, they packed up a painted donkey, Bethlehem-bound.
The Etzenhousers’ son, 5 at the time, sang in the angel choir.
Wearing a baby bump reminded Jana Etzenhouser of her own pregnancies, but in this case, the bulge came from a Tupperware container duct-taped to her middle and then hidden beneath her robes. In the chaos of getting ready, she connected with Mary.
“It was like, ‘Whoa, I don’t know if I can wear this,’” she says, laughing about the many layers. “It was kind of like a fashion emergency. It was just there were a lot of pieces to be put on, and it takes you back to what Mary had to wear and what they went through.”
Next weekend, the Etzenhousers, who have been at the church for almost two years, will reprise their role as Jesus’ parents, this year stepping into the manger scene with an infant of the baby doll variety. They will be there for one night.
Caldwell says it takes 10 to 12 minutes for a car to roll through the story, stopping at each of the five scenes for about two minutes. Last year, about 400 cars showed up over the two evenings, she estimates. Rockwell also remembers church members standing around in the dark, just to see if this could work. It did.
“Hopefully we’re competing a little bit with the shopping centers, saying, ‘There is more to Christmas than just going out and buying gifts,’” Rockwell says. “From our perspective, we’re saying, ‘Think about it a bit.’... The importance is our trying to remind people in this hectic, fast-paced world, ‘Hey, slow down.’”
While part of the event’s purpose is to connect with the surrounding community and invite families to Sunday services, Rockwell says this is not “shoving a cross and a Bible in front of them,” but instead presenting Christianity as a lifestyle that serves its neighbors. And for these nights, at least, that lifestyle involves kindergarteners moonlighting as angels, a sacred baby doll and a wooden camel.
“I wanted a live camel this year,” says Romeo Martinez, one of the three Wise Men this year. “I don’t know the details, but I was told it couldn’t happen. … We have some great artists, and so someone is painting a camel, and every time I see people at church, they say, ‘Your camel is coming along.’”
Martinez, 66, has attended the church for nine years and jokes that he will name his wooden friend “Joe.” Caldwell is not sure if the drive-thru will have live animals this year.
Last year, Martinez spent his Nativity time with the live sheep, kneeling in his robes as cars passed and wrangling the animals in an attempt to give passersby a frontal view. The droppings, he says, weren’t too bad.
“It’s very exciting, and it’s like being in a play,” says Martinez, whose wife will sing in the adult choir. “It’s very rewarding, and a lot of cars do come through. There is a lot of traffic and it’s wonderful to be telling the story of Jesus, and at the last station, there is a choir. There is a lot of fellowship.”