Living Drive-Through Nativity Now in 26th Year
Twenty-six years ago, Rev. Norman Hunt, former minister at the United Christian Church near California, wanted to do something for the community during the Christmas season and came up with the idea of organizing a living, drive-through Nativity.
“He saw an article in the paper describing the event and thought it would be a challenge for his congregation [to put on],” said David Boehm, Ph.D., a biology professor at California University of Pennsylvania. He’s participated in the event since 1991.
Boehm joined many others from the congregation building seven scenes with backdrops and scenery, putting together the costumes and laying out milk jugs with sand on the bottom to create luminaries. To enhance the experience, the church also contacted several area petting zoos to see if they could bring in animals for the nativity scene.
“About 15 minutes before we opened for the first time, the animals arrived, and the driver asked us where we wanted to put the sheep,” Boehm said. “While we did have people playing shepherds, they didn’t know anything about herding sheep so the five animals went running about everywhere with the shepherds in pursuit. It was very funny.”
Along with the sheep came donkeys, calves, llamas and goats, which were wisely kept in pens. That evening, after the event was over, the congregation stabled the animals in a barn on a neighbor’s farm till the next evening’s Nativity.
Through the years, the event has grown to 12 scenes complete with a big spotlight shining up into the sky to represent the Star of Bethlehem. The very first scene depicts the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah who predicts the coming of the Messiah. Other scenes show the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus proclaiming the census decree, Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem and the infant Jesus lying in a manger. All have live people in costume portraying the Biblical narrative except for Jesus who is represented by a doll.
“The Nativity is like a series of still photos with people standing still and not speaking,” said Boehm, who’s portrayed a Roman soldier, Isaiah and a shepherd in the past as well as serving as behind the scenes coordinator to make sure everything is going as planned. “Patrons can drive past the scenes in their cars and read what each one represents by perusing the text in our program.”
For this year’s Live Nativity, scheduled from 6 to 8 p.m. on Dec. 12 and 13 at the church, located at 499 Malden Road near California, about 100 people will participate in the recreation of the Biblical account of the first Christmas. More will help out behind the scenes. The experience includes background music, mostly instrumental versions of carols with occasional singing. At the end of the drive-through, children are rewarded with a candy cane, and dogs are given a special puppy treat.
“The experience can be absolutely beautiful, especially if there’s a light snow fall,” Boehm said. “Often people will drive through more than once to pick up details they might have missed the first time through. The Nativity gives people a chance to relax during the holidays and be thankful for the gift we got a long time ago in Jesus.”
Free of charge, the Nativity is held rain or shine. One year, the event was held in five degree temperatures. Another year, it made it through a blizzard that blew over some of the scenery and scattered it across the road. The congregation made a special effort to get it back up in time, even the snow was inches deep. At any rate, Boehm said he still prays for some snow because it “makes everything magical.”
Attendance the first three years of the Nativity was huge, but even though there has been a decrease in patrons since, attendance is still holding its own.
“The purpose of the Nativity is to give a gift to the entire surrounding community, which is why we waive a fee,” Boehm said. “The first year, some people insisted on making a donation, which is why we have someone standing near the end of the drive for those who might want to donate something.”
Boehm said expenses for renting the animals and the skylight, like everything else, have increased exponentially since the first years of the event.
“We like to thank our community partners who help us fund the rentals,” said Rev. Jana Quisenberry, the church’s current minister. “We include their names in our program and church bulletin and list them in our Nativity Thank You on Facebook.”
California residents, Kent and Debbie Neil have been helping out with the Nativity for years. Kent organizes the music, and Debbie helps out with the costuming. In the last three years, she and Lois Gayman of Richeyville have taken on leadership roles in organizing the event.
“We’re grateful to be able to bless the community in this special way at Christmas,” Rev Quisenberry said. “I feel it makes a great impact on the participants and viewers by focusing on the concept of the birth of Christ.”
Story by Dave Zuchowski for Pennsylvania Bridges. Photos courtesy of David Boehm.