‘Bethlehem’ returns to North Augusta

December 7, 2018

NORTH AUGUSTA — One of Aiken County’s most popular Christmas attractions is in gear this week, with Grace United Methodist Church offering “Return to Bethlehem,” the congregation’s massive, walk-through Nativity display.

The live-action program began in 1999 and is now held on alternating years. Admission is free, and the production involves hundreds of costumed volunteers looking to recreate some of the sights, sounds and smells that were part of the environment in Jesus’ birthplace about 2,000 years ago, in connection with the Bible’s Christmas story.

This year’s presentation began Wednesday and is – weather permitting – to run through Saturday. Hours are 6 to 9 p.m. daily, and admission is free.

“It’s an amazing production,” said cast member Bob Bigger, who is in the role of Gabriel (the angel), due to having the strength and size (standing 6-foot-4) to handle the wings that come with the job.

Each production involves months of planning and involvement from people of all ages, Bigger said, adding, “We put hours into building scenes and rebuilding it to make it as authentic as possible for the people that are coming to experience it.”

“It’s a gift of love. That’s what it’s all about,” said cast member Bruce Wilson, who has performed as a wise man in years past and is now on duty as a shepherd in the manger scene. His wife, Betty, is traditionally a villager and is a “woman at the well” this time around.

Visitors are led through the “city” by a guide who provides basic insight about the scenes being presented, and this year’s guides include Mayor Bob Pettit. “You actually appear to be walking through a village with the sounds, sights and smells that you wouldn’t otherwise experience, and so you can get into it a little bit more for that reason,” he said, noting that live animals are part of the presentation.

The tour starts in the sanctuary with some basic guidance about what to expect. Pettit recommended comfortable clothing and for visitors to “be prepared for an enjoyable evening.”

Debbi Yano, one of the event’s organizers, noted that Wednesday’s attendance was 991 – exceptionally high.

Jenny Lou Jones, the church’s drama director, commented on the cast and crew. “There’s a system, and people have their spot in the system,” she said, citing the example of “angel dressers” – people whose sole responsibility is to have the various “angels” in costume and ready for their roles.

“Everybody does the thing they do well. Carpenters do carpentry. The lighting guy does lighting. Everybody does what they do well … You know who to call.”

Jones noted that this week’s challenges are likely to involve the weather, since Saturday’s forecast includes a strong chance of heavy precipitation. Misting rain, she said, is acceptable, but a drenching downpour is not.

Most visitors experience “Return to Bethlehem” on foot, but arrangements can be made for the handicapped to drive (or be driven) through the scenes. Arrangements can also be made for local nursing homes to send groups to drive through the production at the start of each evening’s presentation.

The church is at 639 Georgia Ave., and the presentation is held in the field behind the upper parking lot, next to East Avenue. Children under 16 years of age must be accompanied by an adult. Details are at 803-279-7525.

Want to go?

WHAT: “Return to Bethlehem”

WHEN: 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday

WHERE: Grace United Methodist Church, 639 Georgia Ave., North Augusta

COST: Admission is free

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call 803-279-7525.

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