(RNS) — At the Nativity display outside Faith Church of Lafayette, Indiana, the baby will be laid in a manger this year, surrounded by friendly beasts — except for the donkeys. They bite. In the past, the camels have been known to kick.
The church’s Lafayette Living Nativity, which Faith has hosted since 1991, may be one of the few Christmas traditions that go off in usual fashion in a pandemic year.
“We’ve been practicing for this moment for the last 30 years,” said the Rev. Steve Viars, senior pastor of Faith, who estimates that a quarter of a million visitors have attended the event in that time.
Live Nativities, in which visitors drive — and sometimes, especially in warmer climes, walk — through a number of scenes retelling the biblical story of Jesus’ birth, have been popular around the U.S. for years. Actors from churches’ congregations and, often, live animals are accompanied by narration of the story on a provided CD, accessed on smartphones via QR code or broadcast on a low-frequency transmitter.
Other churches offer a somewhat less “live” version that visitors can drive through, illustrating the story on painted backdrops.
“People still need the message of Christmas, the true meaning, the hope and the love. And so how can we provide that for them in a safe way?” said the Rev. Jonathan Andersen, pastor of Harvest Point United Methodist Church in Locust Grove, Georgia, which is adapting its annual live Nativity, Return to Bethlehem, to share that story as safely as possible.
The church is shrinking the number of scenes and the length of the walking tour, in which guides lead small groups past a petting zoo and the city of Bethlehem, a semipermanent structure on the church’s campus. The number of masked guests in each group will be limited and the total event will be held on two days, Dec. 12 and 13, not three. Prayer will move outside afterward, around campfires “in a distanced way,” instead of ending inside the church.
This year, Andersen said, “The gift of it is everything’s different and people are open to change.”
The church also will give away a woodcut Christmas ornament instead of the usual hot chocolate. Church staff thought about engraving it with the year, but, after some thought about the past 12 months, Andersen said, laughing, “I think we’re going to leave 2020 off the ornament.”
The roadside live Nativity at Advent Lutheran Church, a congregation affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Columbus, Ohio, is in its 50 year. At a busy, three-way intersection fronted by City Hall, the church and a golf course — the corner of “government, God and golf” — the event normally features coloring stations, hot chocolate and performances by the Singing Buckeyes, a men’s a capella group, according to the Rev. Aaron Layne.