Bringing Christmas to life

By Stacey Hewitt Orobona | | No Comments »

Visitors driving down Main Street in Hudson on Dec. 4 were likely surprised to see representatives of the Holy Family on the Green, along with an assortment of animals, including a yak, a donkey, a camel and sheep. What they witnessed was a live nativity scene put on annually by First Congregational Church of Hudson.

“We look at it as our gift from the church to the community,” says Dee Buchanan, the church’s children’s education director. “It takes a lot of effort, but the members just love to do it.”

Buchanan had the idea to create a live nativity back in 2003. That first year it was held in the church courtyard and the animals — a donkey, a goat, and a couple of sheep — were corralled by bales of hay. The event was also memorable for Buchanan due to the amount of snow.

“There was about six to eight inches. I ended up shoveling the courtyard in full costume as a shepherd,” she says, adding “there was something magical about the courtyard because you could look down from the church windows and see all the animals.”

In 2005, the church decided to move the live nativity to the Green. That decision resulted in greater visibility and also more headaches for the organizers.

“Out on the Green, it makes us more nervous. We’ve had broken leads and have had to chase a goat across the Green and tackle it,” Buchanan says.

Fortunately, no major mishaps have occurred; however, Buchanan recalled the year that a llama was sent by accident. The teenage participants convinced her to allow it to stay and said they could pretend it was a camel. To say that the llama did not get into the holiday spirit would be an understatement.

“He spent most of the day spitting grass at people,” said Buchanan. “That was his first and last appearance at the nativity.”

Last year the church had an actual camel appear at the event for the first time. Unlike his fake predecessor, he was very friendly.

“He was a hit from the moment they unloaded him. It was an amazing scene to see this giant animal walking across the Green,” said Buchanan. “It stopped traffic.”

A photographer was on site that year and at the recent event to commemorate people’s visits with the animals and the participants playing members of the Holy Family. Of course no nativity scene would be complete without baby Jesus. His role is played in turns by various babies, but there is no set schedule since the infants only participate when ready. The live nativity requires a large number of volunteers to assume the various other positions, among them shepherds, angels, and wise men.

“It takes about 100 characters to fill all the roles for the day. People do one-hour shifts,” Buchanan says.

Those are just the visible roles. Many volunteers are also involved in the behind-the-scenes preparations, such as costume repair and the stable construction. For the first year on the Green, the church used a tent covered in burlap. The stable appeared in 2006 after it was built as a confirmation project. Each year it has to be reassembled and then dismantled.

“They set up on Saturday, rain or shine,” Buchanan says. “Last year it was very cold. They were out there in their Carhartts with their drills and step ladders.”

Aside from organizing the participants, Buchanan’s biggest challenge in creating the nativity was finding the animals. In 2010 she switched to Dwayne Felger from Salem, Ohio. He accompanies his animals and plays the role of a shepherd. Most importantly, Felger cleans up afterward. Last year, he had some help from Jeff Wells, a member of the church’s Christian Education Board.

“Jeff had fun scooping. He joked that that’s why the flowers on the Green looked so nice this year,” Buchanan says, laughing.

Two years ago Wells volunteered to work on the live nativity scene. He and fellow board member Bill Vidmar came up with the idea to get the camel. One of the unexpected perks involved getting to ride it.

“The owner of the camel let a few people get on throughout the day. I thought ‘when in Rome.’ I had never been on a camel before,” Wells says. “It’s not a comfortable feeling.”

Wells has been pleased with the positive feedback and likes helping organize the live nativity. He especially enjoys watching the young children who get to dress up as shepherds and lead some of the smaller animals around.

“To see their faces light up is pretty special,” he said.

Wells participates in the event itself and says that when it is cold, moving around or talking a lot can help the time pass. It is not a silent nativity and much interaction occurs between visitors and participants.

“This is a way to invite people into our church,” Wells says. “Our slogan is ‘wherever you are on your journey, you are welcome here.’”

For those interested in more information about First Congregational Church or to see photos from the event, visit www.hudsonucc.org.

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