Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Re-enactment of sacred scene evokes Christmas spirit

by HEATHER ROTH on December 22, 2011 1:45 AM

The first year the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church along Warren Road held a living Nativity scene, they had two months to plan -- including sewing costumes for Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels and wise men.

Now, 27 years later, the program continues, using many of those original costumes.

"It was just a pretty neat thing the way it all came about," said Brenda Isenhart, of Plumville, who has overseen costume preparation since the beginning. "Everyone just jumped on board, and it really was a real group effort, shopping for fabric or donating fabric or cutting the patterns out or taking them home to sew them."

This year, the White Township church's living Nativity continues from 7 to 9 p.m. today and Friday.

Nine volunteers, dressed and made up as wise men, shepherds, an angel, and Mary and Joseph will sit, kneel or stand around a manger in a silent depiction of a Nativity scene.

But there are dozens of other volunteers who make it all come together each year.

"It does involve a lot of volunteers. It wouldn't be a success without them," said Joe Snyder, who, with his wife, Karen, has directed the program since 2003.

Every year, right after Thanksgiving, the church puts up a sign-up sheet. Members of the congregation volunteer for one of two shifts as characters each of the three nights of the program, as baby-sitters and animal caretakers, as makeup artists and costume organizers, as set constructors, or even to bring meals to serve the volunteers.

Then the Snyders provide each person with printed instructions on details such as when to arrive or what to expect. Snyder guessed that there are 70 or 80 volunteers each year.

"It's really not that complicated," he said.

Favorite jobs are the character roles. "We seem to never have any problem filling the role of the angel; typically the junior high or senior high girls like to fill that role. A Mary and Joseph typically isn't a hard role either," he said.

On the first night of the program, Isenhart arrives first, laying out costumes and making sure robes and belts are placed together. She's had to make a few new costumes over the years, especially to accommodate children who want to participate. But this year nothing needed to be replaced.

"They're actually pretty simple, they're a basic costume, with straight lines. We tend to make them bigger so that they fit everybody, then we'll belt them up to fit a shorter or smaller person," she said.

When the character volunteers arrive, they stop by Gerry and Lu Branca's station first, for makeup.

"We enjoy it. You take this either handsome or pretty face, and you make it into this new face. It's neat, you actually just transform them into this character of the Bible," Lu Branca said.

The Brancas directed the production for years before handing it off to the Snyders. They're the ones who introduced meals for the volunteers.

Now the Brancas handle the makeup. And they've learned some tricks, such as the wisdom of laying makeup over cold cream to make it easier to wash off.

"We've enjoyed it all these years. (People) will come in and say, 'Wow, you're still here, Lu.' And I'll say 'Yeah … you're serving the Lord, and that's the big thing.'"

Branca said she'll put makeup on about 14 people a night, between the two sets. And when she's done, she goes outside to watch the scene herself.

"What's so neat to see is the families standing out there with their little guys, you know," she said. "It's always neat to go out there and see the little guys and their parents, because people need to know what Christmas, we feel, certainly is, and it's our gift to the community."

Of course, any time there are farm animals as part of a Nativity scene, there are bound to be complications.

One year a calf escaped, leading volunteers on a chase through the snow to the side of the road. Sometimes the donkey eats straw out of the manger, or nips Joseph. Goats tend to like the taste of the costumes. And chickens were a mistake. They weren't invited back.

"The antics of the animals sometimes are really fun," Snyder said. "The animals we get are used to being around people. … I think they enjoy the attention."

Snyder said visitors are welcome to either sit in their cars or walk up to the scene, and said it's a chance to reflect.

"There are no lines that the characters are reciting, it's just being able to stand there and reflect on the birth of Jesus," he said. "We think it's an important part of celebrating Christmas. We kind of look at what we do there as a gift to the community, just to give people an opportunity to celebrate the birth of Jesus."

Bill Murphy joined the church as pastor the year after the Nativity program started. Often, he volunteers as one of the characters. The goal is to connect with the community and focus on the meaning of Christmas, he said, and he enjoys watching the children who come close to see and touch.

"Little kids come up and they just want to touch the animals , touch the people," he said. "There have been others, adults who have just walked up and thank us very sincerely, (saying) how meaningful it was for them."

For Isenhart, it's been a way to escape the more commercial aspects of the season. She said she just enjoys being part of it for nearly three decades.

"I've just always been put off by the commercial aspect of Christmas, and I really enjoy this opportunity. It helps me to focus on the true meaning of Christmas, the birth of Christ," she said. "It's just something we like to do."

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