Vinland Nativity tells quiet Christmas story
When the Vinland United Methodist Church organized the Vinland Living Nativity 25 years ago, church members didn't expect it to become an annual event or a family tradition.
Nearly 800 visitors traveled to the rural Vinland farm of Howard and Elizabeth Hemphill that first year. The quiet scene of the Holy Family, shepherds and farm animals hasn't changed much over the years which is one of the nativity's attractions.
"It takes the place of the stress," said Jean Moore, chairperson of the church's nativity committee. "A lot of them have done this as a family tradition for years. After all the hectic shopping and the commercial part of Christmas, this brings the reason back to the season."
Moore said the nativity's 25th year brings the biggest change with a new location. The nativity will be held inside the exhibition barn at Vinland Fairgrounds from 6-9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Volunteers have gathered on weekends to prepare the new location even on Saturday when the wind blew temperatures well below zero.
"The fairgrounds will be more centrally located," Moore said. "It is more sensible for buses and a large crowd. We just have more room."
It may be cold outside, but the barn will be heated with furnaces set up by volunteers.
"With the way the weather has been, we wouldn't dare have it without heat," Moore said.
In addition to the visitors, the furnaces will keep the Holy Family and shepherds warm. Committee member Judy Cooper helped gather the volunteers for the nativity. In all, 18 babies will portray the baby Jesus in half-hour shifts. Cooper was still rounding up babies last week.
Shepherds are easier to find. A couple of adults and three children volunteer in one-hour shifts. Bob Miller, rural Baldwin, is approaching his 21st year as a shepherd, and he said every year has been a pleasure.
"I attended one of the programs, and it was a mystical experience," said Miller of how he became a long-time volunteer. "It is a reminder of the Christmas story."
And Miller says he gets to do more than portray a shepherd, he actually gets to be one.
"I enjoy tending the sheep," he said. Twin lambs have become a tradition at the nativity. "And they are ornery. It has been a fun experience."
As far as other shepherds, Cooper said all the children of the church look forward to being shepherds.
Weather also plays an important role in the nativity. Moore said the lowest guest list on record is 628 people in 1989, when temperatures were below zero. The highest attendance was in 1984, when more than 2,500 people flocked to the living nativity.
"Most of the time it's over 1,000," said Moore.
Free-will donations from the nativity will be given to Youthville, a Methodist organization for troubled youth. More information about Youthville will be available at the fairgrounds.