Greg Tvrdik fondly recalls playing a magi as a teen in the living nativity at First Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Minn. Now, 25 years later, as the church’s director of church administration, he coordinates the elaborate production, including live camels that depict the magis’ arrival at Jesus’ birth.

Tvrdik laughed when he said he has seen a lot of changes in the production. “We used to be just a manger scene,” he said. “It was a drive-thru that started in our parking lot.”

A few years ago, the congregation moved the living nativity from the parking lot to the street to make it accessible to more people. The highly anticipated community event drew about 850 people last year and closed down the street, Tvrdik said.

First’s vast living nativity, which runs the first Saturday in December, includes approximately 260 members working in shifts to play the characters and takes 90 minutes to set up, Tvrdik said. Afterward, the congregation enjoys seasonal snacks and warm drinks.

First summarizes the scenes on painted boards in front of each vignette.

Scene 1: Angel appears to Mary, the annunciation.

Scene 2: Joseph travels with Mary to pay the taxes.

Scene 3: Angel appears to the shepherds.

Scene 4: Manger with Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, 10 to 12 shepherds, six to eight sheep, and other animals.

Scene 5: Magi traveling east, Epiphany.

Scene 6: The Easter cross; he has risen.

“Personally, it’s so great to see it at this level,” Tvrdik said. “I’ve done this for so many years. It fills my heart.”

While not all nativities are this extensive, the congregations that organize them say live presentations are a great way to express the Christmas story and connect a church to its community.

“It makes it real,” said Paul Milholland, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church of Astoria and Long Island City in Queens, N.Y. “A living nativity isn’t that hard to do. You just have to have the space, the people who are interested and work with a reputable farm.”

The congregation is planning its second production, which is coordinated by their Creative Collaborative committee of artists, musicians, composers and people in the performing arts, said Susan Stoderl, office administrator at the church.

Trinity’s living nativity, which appears after worship on the second Sunday of Advent, is particularly unique because it takes place on a busy city sidewalk. “It’s the story of Jesus’ birth, especially in the city. You forget that Bethlehem was a pretty crowded place, according to the Bible. No one expects to see this kind of thing on the sidewalk,” Milholland said, adding that “the goats do like to run up into the church.”

In Brandon, Miss., Nativity Lutheran Church leans into its namesake to commemorate the birth of Christ. “It all began 27 years ago when someone in the congregation asked, ‘Since the church is called Nativity, shouldn’t we do something to honor our name?’ ” said Ed Van Cleef, a member of the social ministry committee, which oversees the living nativity production.

Van Cleef, who has worked on all 27 productions, said people park across the street from the church and wait for the animals and cast to come out. For the past few years, the nativity has included a camel, cows, donkeys and sheep.

He said having a living nativity is a good way to get the message out about the ELCA: “There aren’t a lot of Lutherans in the South, and it’s hard to get our message out. This is one way to do it. Lutherans aren’t a sect; we’re pretty normal Christians.”

The congregation holds its living nativity the first weekend in December “so people think about what Christmas is really about,” he said. “It’s not about shopping. Our goal is to share the message of the gospel.”

Wendy Healy
Healy is a freelance writer and member of Trinity Lutheran Church, N.Y. She served as communications director for Lutheran Disaster Response of New York following the 9/11 attacks.

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