Our town's Seventh Day Adventist Church has a large complex and grounds where for the last eight years it has hosted a Christmas event called Follow The Star. Every year in December I hear from neighbors and townspeople "Have you been to 'Follow The Star' yet?" and until now I've replied (in an exasperated and disbelieving tone) "No!" As in, Can you believe that we've lived here four years and still haven't gone?!
So we remedied that. At least, a few of us did.
My parents had also heard great things about this event and mom called Sunday evening to say that the time is now! Let's go! Boy One and Daddy chose to stay home while Boy Two, Girl and I squished into the back of my parent's Blazer and drove four blocks to the center. After the initial confusing obtaining of tickets, killing two hours time and returning, we sat in the sanctuary and people watched/sang Christmas carols/listened to a piano player entertain us while we waited for our group to be called. The best part is always the people watching - Girl was mesmerized by the twirling of a fellow little girl in a sparkly fuchsia dress.
Our group was finally called and, bundled in our coats, tights, warm socks, boots, fleece jackets, scarves and gloves, we exited the building into the 36-degrees-and-clear night. The first stop was a little shed where a 'typical American family' lounged in their living room, harried by the holiday busyness and questioning the heritage from whence it came. Suddenly, we are interrupted by three middle-aged Magi (all of the people we encounter are in costume - really well done) who invite us to come with them as they follow the star to find the new King. We encounter a shepherd and his daughter, who guide us to Jerusalem. There are torches that light the concrete path we walk on, and we come to the Temple (plywood painted as stone work - well done) where several older priests are gathered around a man sacrificing a burnt offering. A woman wants to offer her money to God, but the priests won't let her as she doesn't have enough to buy the 'required coins' to offer. A man wants to offer a lamb, but he can't afford the ones that are being sold at the temple. Simeon and Anna are also there, and tell us of the promise of the Messiah. We move on to Herod's palace to question him.
The Roman soldiers stop us at the palace, sneering that Herod doesn't usually have an audience with 'rabble' like us. (At this point my dad begins chuckling at the actors, their great lines, mild humor, etc. They were GREAT. My dad pretty much laughs the whole rest of the outing.) Herod comes, sits on his throne, talks to the wise men. He then goes behind a transparent curtain to question the scribes about the scriptures and we see him yell at them and devise a plot to trap the new King. He comes back out and tells the Magi (and us, their entourage) to go to Bethlehem, where the baby is prophesied to be born. We leave.
Girl and Boy Two are really buying in to this by now. The fires at the temple, the towns, etc. are really adding a great tone to the darkness and cold of the night and are filling the air with the smell of smoke. Girl is a little frightened of the soldiers and the uncertainty of where we are going, what will happen, etc. Boy Two has pretty well taken off to join the other kids in our group and isn't the least afraid.
On our journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem we encounter a group of shepherds (a few teenagers and several preteens) and we are invited to warm up at their fire while the Magi move on. While talking around the fire with the shepherds suddenly there is a bright light behind us and there, suspended between a few trees by some cables, is an angel! This is the part that really grabs my kids. The angels tells us about the baby born in Bethlehem and urges us to go visit him, and suddenly a group of angels are illuminated (behind and to the side of the first one) and sing a respectable "Joy to the World". At this point I'm thinking, These actors must be FREEZING! They only have on light costumes and many of them aren't close to warm fires. But they are reenacting the same scenes probably a dozen times or more in a three hour period. If I were that suspended angel I would be too afraid of moving around and the cables snapping to be able to pull off a convincing performance.
As we leave the shepherds' fire we are suddenly surrounded by several Roman soldiers on horseback who have emerged from the shadows and demand to know what we are doing wandering around in the darkness. We manage to get by them and then encounter a mob of poor beggars (most of whom are children) asking for alms. Our shepherd guide advises us to be careful that they don't pick our pockets. I wished I had some change in my pockets to give them, just to see what they would do with it!
When our group enters Bethlehem we first must stop at the tent of the official to be counted for the census. After some finagling, we are directed to an inn to stay at for the night. We knock on the door and a grouchy innkeeper comes and tells us to look elsewhere, he's been full up for two weeks! We go through town, many women and children displaying their wares and hawking their goods for us to buy: vegetables, bread, candles, pots, wool, etc. Very authentic. The second innkeeper also is annoyed and tells us about the inn at the other side of town. (The innkeepers may have been my favorite part.)
A little ways on we come to the final inn, where the keeper directs us to his adjoining stable, where he had already sent another couple to stay for the night. Inside we find Joseph, Mary and their (inauthentic) baby, along with an angel who sings "Mary, Did You Know?" while we watch. As we exit the stable, our shepherd guide directs our eyes to the crosses on the hill, and mentions why they are there, and muses on them and the new baby. We finally return to the American Family Living Room for the conclusion of the tour before we are released to the refreshment tent for apple cider and a cookie.
I couldn't get over how many people they must have had to put this together! There were two or three tours of people moving through the campus at any given time, so there were several sets of Magi, shepherd guides, etc. and all of the actors at the temple, Bethlehem, the shepherd campfire, the angels, the beggars, the Romans, etc. And so many of the actors were children! And all these people played their parts SO WELL. It was amazing.
We also really liked the real animals: sheep and goats at the temple, horses for the Romans to ride, sheep and a llama at the stable. I could actually smell the animals before I saw them, and that just added to the atmosphere! I was mildly disappointed that there weren't any camels (drat!) and a little surprised that there weren't any cows.
Girl was most impressed by the suspended angel, and reminded me as I put her to bed that night that "The angel said 'don't be afraid.'" This really made an impression on her, as she mentioned it more than once. I think the experience really helped the nativity story come alive for my kids in a way that is impossible for most of us to understand, living where and how we do. I'd love the go again, next weekend!
The program is only for two weekends in December each year. This link has all the information if you want to go. I highly, highly recommend it!