COLUMBIA — The sounds of donkeys braying, children singing and handbells ringing are staples of the holiday season at many Columbia congregations. Living nativities and Christmas musicals and pageants often are popular means of outreach in many churches, as well as ways of showcasing favorite carols and hymns.
Many congregations spend the weeks before the holiday season preparing for their performances. First Christian Church has a Christmas pageant tradition that's continued for three-quarters of a century.
“It’s been done, to my understanding, about the same way all those years,” Molly Read said of the pageant, which marked its 77th year last week.
Read, a member of First Christian, has participated in many pageant roles. She’s sung in the preschool choir, been the angel in the manger scene and is now helping kindergarteners and first-graders with their performances.
“It’s always fifth-grade boys and their dads that are the shepherds,” Read said. “Three guys are the kings. A senior girl is the angel.”
At this year’s pageant, preschool children clad in white robes and gold tinsel halos quietly sang “Away in a Manger” to start the pageant. Children from each grade level joined the scene on stage to sing their selections.
One of the newer traditions, rainbow bells, were played by the kindergarten and first grade Sunday school class. They chimed “Angels We Have Heard on High” holding multicolored bells — each color signaling a different note.
“I think it’s always kind of neat to see the story acted out and come to life every year again," said Read, who has been involved in 13 pageants. "It's nice to have those figures. It's always someone that has a brand new baby that plays Mary and Joseph so it is a brand new life in our church."
After the program, members bring a dessert or some kind of snack to share at a reception. Tables get piled high with cookies and treats as families wind through the maze, chatting and enjoying holiday treats.
Jeff Johnson, who played one of the three wise men, agreed that the telling of the story of Jesus' birth was one of his favorite parts.
"I don't know if there's one favorite thing I have," said Johnson. "I think the whole story is a beautiful, marvelous story."
Telling the Christmas story to the community is a goal for many churches in mid-Missouri that host a a living nativity display each season. First Christian was one of the first churches to hold a display, which is timed to coincide with events scheduled in The District.
Jimmy Spear, associate minister, said the church had been putting on the living nativity for a number of years, but it was hard to say exactly how many.
"There are many influences over the Christmas season, and to put the Christmas story of Christ being born out on the street in front of our church helps others to see the story unfold with angels, wise men and Mary and Joseph in a unique way that hopefully people can connect with that story," Spear said.
The actors in the living nativity are all members of the church who come and volunteer.
"We say 'Anybody who wants to be in it, come on!'" Spear said.
At the living nativity at Fairview United Methodist Church, visitors who arrived in the parking lot were greeted by shepherds who led them to the city of Bethlehem, made mostly from painted plywood and hay.
After leaving the inn where they see actors representing Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus, guests were led inside for cookies, hot beverages and a sing-along.
Hallsville Baptist Church opened its living nativity, "The Greatest Gift of All" on Saturday. Showings continue Sunday, beginning at 6:30 p.m.
Brenda Davis, a church member and event organizer, said the nativity has nine scenes based on scriptural events, starting from when the angel visits Mary. Other scenes will include Mary and Joseph traveling to Jerusalem complete with a donkey, a marketplace and stable. There are a few scenes that depict Jesus as he grows into adulthood, and the final scene shows the resurrection.
The characters in the nativity are all members of the congregation who volunteer to be a part, Davis said. Each night has two shifts of people so actors don't have to be outside the whole time. Every 30 minutes the cast members switch.
Visitors view all the scenes from inside their car, Davis said. When they arrive they are given a CD to listen to while they drive though the nativity.
Midway Locust Grove United Methodist Church is one of the last churches to hold its living nativity, which is on Christmas Eve, from 6 to 8 p.m.