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Live nativity in Charlottesville offers glimpse into first-century lives

Evergreens, gingerbread and peppermint are only a few of the stars of the holiday landscape. A variety of sights, scents and sounds of a first-century Christmas will get easier to appreciate this weekend.

“A Night in Bethlehem,” in its seventh year, will be presented outdoors at Aldersgate United Methodist Church north of Charlottesville from 4:45 to 7:15 p.m. Saturday. Live reenactments of the nativity story, complete with animals, are scheduled for 5:30 and 6:45 p.m. The church choir also will lead visitors in a sing-along of favorite traditional Christmas carols.

Church member Fay Painter will be working at the oils and spices booth, which will give visitors a fragrant introduction to the Middle East of Jesus’ time.

“We really researched what was used for what,” Painter said. Children can learn more about the fragrant frankincense and myrrh from the story of the magi, and a large aloe plant will remind visitors of the plants and botanicals used in burial practices. Cinnamon, coriander and cedar oil will be there, along with bitter herbs used in Passover meal observances.

One herb that’s common today in many cuisines and in skin and hair care products had multiple uses for first-century families, too.

“The takeaway at our booth is a sprig of rosemary,” Painter said. “Rosemary would not be mentioned in the Bible, because it would be like writing about dish soap. Joseph could have added sprigs of rosemary to the manger to repel bugs.”

At the scribe booth, there will be time to learn about the Hebrew alphabet and how to write words and phrases.

Children will be able to work with clay at the pottery booth and get some practice wielding small hammers at the carpentry booth. At the bakery booth, there will be time to learn about unleavened bread and how it is baked.

While you’re making your way from booth to booth, keep an eye out for a census taker and some Roman soldiers. Their presence serves as a reminder of the tensions of the time under Roman rule.

Last year’s reenactment drew more than 400 people, which can add a note of realism to the bustle of the marketplace. A hospitality booth will offer cookies and hot chocolate or cider.

The event can offer busy families a break from scurrying from task to task. Painter said that “A Night in Bethlehem” can be a moving and meaningful way to reflect on the actual holiday behind all the modern shopping and trappings. She said she marveled last year at how moved a family of recent newcomers was to see the nativity story unfold for the first time.

“We want to remind everybody of the true meaning of Christmas,” Painter said. “It’s really meaningful for people who’ve never seen it live before.”

Admission is free. Aldersgate United Methodist Church is at 1500 E. Rio Road. For information, go to or call (434) 973-5806.


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