CENTRALIA — The first Noel came to life Saturday night.
Nine churches, 65 actors, more than 40 volunteers and a stable full of live animals combined their efforts to portray the birth of Jesus Christ in downtown Centralia. The event, titled "On a Night in Bethlehem," was the culmination of almost a year of work by event coordinators and members of houses of worship throughout the community.
- Bethlehem Baptist Church
Free tours were led by an actor assuming the role of the angel Gabriel and began at First Baptist Church at 5 p.m. Tours were scheduled to last 30 minutes each and continue until 8 p.m.
To accommodate visitors, organizers split the tours into four groups of 15 to 20 people, each led by one Gabriel.
"I have been sent by our heavenly Father to deliver a message to you — a message of God's love, sent to us by his son, Jesus," Gabriel told the assembled crowd at the beginning of the walk.
From there, each group began a walk through the town square, which had been transformed for the purposes of the event. Plywood stables stood at the corners of the square, and empty milk gallons weighed down with sand held candles that illuminated the path as Gabriel led groups and entered scenes along the journey.
The script, inspired by the Gospels, included scenes such as the appearance of Gabriel to Mary, the turning away of Mary and Joseph at the inn, the appearance of the magi and the anger of King Herod upon learning of Jesus' birth.
"King of the Jews, come to take my place? No, no, never!" Herod bellowed in the square's gazebo, transformed into a kingly chamber with golden sashes and purple rugs.
Jackson Wells, 9, of Centralia, was impressed by King Herod's performance.
"I like how he had his voice," Wells said.
Traditional holiday hymns were also performed a cappella during the event, including "We Three Kings" and "Joy to the World."
Live animals were included in the Nativity. The bleating of sheep and lowing of cattle could be heard echoing throughout the square. A live donkey accompanied Mary and Joseph on their journey to the inn.
The tour ended with the image of the baby Jesus, with the spiritual guide Gabriel taking his place behind the kneeling Mary and Joseph. Worship leaders who accompanied the groups then urged attendees to remember the religious reason for the holiday season.
"From all of us in our little community, and all the churches that helped put this together, we hope that this Christmas may be more insightful, may be more meaningful, and personally may reveal to you more and more the Christ child born in Bethlehem," the Rev. Jed Angell of Friendship Christian Church said at the end of the first tour.
Attendees of the event, who lined the sidewalks waiting for tours in front of First Baptist Church by 5:30 p.m., agreed with the sentiment.
Kay Richmond of St. Louis, who was visiting family in Centralia on Saturday night, said the Nativity tour was a good way to get away from the bustle of the holiday season.
"We came today to see the real meaning and the reason we celebrate Christmas," Richmond said.
The Belsche family, from Centralia, echoed those thoughts. Doug and Melissa Belsche, along with two of their children, Summer, 6, and Nick, 8, said they attended the tour to remind them of what was important during the holidays and support members of their church, First Baptist.
"This is the reason for the season; we're here to see the story," Melissa Belsche said.
That story required months of planning and organization. The Rev. Joe Jimerson of First Christian Church praised event coordinator Lori Benson and the commitment of all the churches in the area who made the tour possible.
"(Benson) was really the driving force behind this," Jimerson said. The involvement of all the churches, however, allowed the event to have the scale that it did.
"I'd say it really is an illustration of the community gathering together and rallying around this idea of Christmas and the coming of Christ into the world. It's bigger than any one church," Jimerson said.
Organizers hope the community will come together again and make the Nativity tour an annual event.
On Saturday night, the focus of those taking the tour remained transfixed on the baby in the manger and the actors who brought the familiar scenes to life.