The scene near St. James Parish in Okotoks, Alta., is like a movie set depicting Bethlehem on the Prairies – complete with a synagogue, spice store, pottery shop and bakery. It’s everything you could expect to see in the town 2000 years ago – plus a snowblower.
“It’s wonderful out here. It’s challenging at times with the weather, but it makes it worthwhile once you see all the people come through,” said Gerry Vant Erve, a volunteer with St. James Parish who was part of a team of dozens of people helping construct the “town” on Saturday.
Volunteers have been working on the display since March, sparing no detail on re-creating the story of Christmas.
This tradition started back in 2017 and ran for a few years until COVID-19 restrictions put the event on hold. This year marks the first time the Living Nativity Scene has been back since the pandemic.
“They’re usually amazed by the size of it and by the amount of buildings that are here and overall space,” Vant Erve said.
There’s a wool shop where actors use turmeric and pomegranate to color wool and a blacksmith shop handing out items forged on-site.
“We make a shepherd’s hook that we give away, one per family, and a cross that we forge together,” said Keith Hartman who plays the role of the town blacksmith.
“That’s the point of this. It’s just to tell a story and to try and get people to feel some visceral response – to be able to touch it and see it; feel the cold and warm and the light,” Hartman said.
Visitors also get the chance to know what it feels like to be turned away from an inn that had no room at a time when a certain couple was desperately seeking shelter.
“I couldn’t imagine being Mary travelling at that point of pregnancy and wanting a safe place to bring your baby into the world,” said Kayla Boland who is playing the role of Mary.
Her husband is playing the role of Joseph and their six-week-old daughter Eliada will be making a guest appearance as baby Jesus.
The family is one of four “holy families” that will be taking shifts on Saturday night from 4 – 8 p.m.
It’s a big task building a town from the ground up for one night and finding sheep and donkeys and shepherds to keep an eye on them, but for the folks taking part, telling the story of the birth of Jesus is a labour of love.
“He is the person that symbolizes love for us on this planet and how to live your life. It’s about self-sacrifice, which is what this is all about too. I’m sacrificing my time and everyone out here is sacrificing their time to get this done, not not just today but for the last couple of months. (Jesus) was about self-sacrifice. It’s about what you’re willing to do for others. That’s the legacy you leave behind – not the material stuff you can’t take that with you – it’s the relationships and the interactions you have with people that you live behind,” Vant Erve said.
Admission to the Living Nativity is free but donations will go to the Magic of Christmas in Okotoks and to the Foothills Community Immigrant Services.
“We live in a very affluent part of the world. We are blessed and we didn’t do anything special to be born here. We need to be thankful for that. I think we should try to understand other people’s lives … try to experience things that give us some context of what other people in the world have experienced,” Hartman said.