Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem for a census two millennia ago. Those who travel to Bigham Knoll in Jacksonville this weekend for a living nativity will be similarly surveyed as they begin tours.
"They will be asked, 'Where are you from? Have you come back?' so that you enter that experience a little bit earlier and feel more in the flow," said Richard Evans, associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Jacksonville.
Five churches and Bigham Knoll have banded together to recreate the story of the birth of Christ from 5 to 8 p.m. today and from 3:30 to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The inaugural event last year drew 3,500 viewers.
"The anticipation this year has been even more because last year's went so well," said Evans. "It can only get better."
More than 60 actors will portray six scenes — from the Angel Gabriel visiting Mary before the birth through the wise men finding the Christ child in Bethlehem. Pre-recorded narrations explain each scene.
"There's a guide along with each group that goes scene to scene," said Evans. The tours take about 30 minutes.
Last year, guides took groups just to the first scene. The added guide time is just one of the changes initiated by organizers. Hours have been expanded, there will be more musical presentations, a greater variety of food and more animals in the field, including two donkeys, sheep and the resident chickens.
After the tour, viewers can enjoy music inside the Bigham Knoll gymnasium. Last year co-owners Mel and Brooke Ashland hired a musical group to entertain.
"This year we wanted to open it up to some of the local churches and singing groups and do more Christmas music," said Debbie Hoffman, who is coordinating the performances.
First Presbyterian's choir will sing from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Saturday and Sunday will each feature four different groups performing between 4 and 7:30 p.m.
"The idea is not necessarily for people to come and be entertained," said Hoffman. "We want them to sing along and hopefully the groups will sing songs that are familiar to them."
Hot fare from Frau Kemmling's Schoolhaus Brewhaus restaurant will be offered for sale at the event. That's in response to visitors' comments last year when only light refreshments were available, said Brooke Ashland, Bigham Knoll co-owner.
Brian Stellar of Jacksonville Calvary Church is coordinating parking and traffic flow with Jacksonville police. More signs will be in place to guide visitors to parking.
Closure of part of D Street was sought for the event, but the City Council chose to leave it open after neighborhood residents raised concerns.
Ashland and Evans said the actors would be well- protected in the event of inclement weather. Ashland recommends viewers have umbrellas and be prepared to walk on fields and gravel paths.
A living nativity presented by 100 young children that Ashland saw in China with her husband, Mel, helped inspire the event.
"I said it's a shame we could go to another country and see a nativity, but not have one in our own country," said Brooke Ashland.
At the same time First Presbyterian's Scott Seufert was talking with other congregations about creating a living nativity. Availability of the Bigham Knoll site allowed the collaboration.
Churches participating include First Presbyterian, Jacksonville Calvary, Lumen Dei Church, St. Andrew's Anglican Church and Ruch Community Bible Church.
Bigham Knoll is located at the end of E Street off Fifth Street (Highway 238). Attendants will assist with parking.
Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.