By H.M. Cauley
There may be frigid temperatures, holiday music on the radio and Christmas trees on every corner, but for the Woodruff family, it’s not really the holiday season until the Living Nativity pageant is over.
The Sandy Springs clan has been part of the annual recreation of Bethlehem at St. John United Methodist Church for 10 years.
Dad Brent Woodruff has been Joseph, a shepherd in the field, a wise man, an angel and a Roman guard. For the last two years, his wife. Lynn, has organized the event, lining up camels, donkeys, sheep and goats; overseeing set construction; assigning roles to volunteers; and getting costumes. Their two children have also played various roles through the years.
“For our family, it’s not Christmas if we don’t do Bethlehem,” Brent Woodruff said. “As much as we enjoy Santa Claus, reindeer, the holiday movies, this is the best holiday experience.”
Since the early 1990s, St. John’s has retold the Christmas story to visitors who walk through a maze of “streets” lined with craftsmen, soldiers, shepherds, animals and families. The costumed volunteers interact with the strollers as they wind their way toward the manger and the host of angels atop the church roof.
“The whole idea is to recreate the experience, as if you have been called to come back to Bethlehem for the census,” Brent Woodruff said. “For me, the best part is watching the families come through with children and grandparents and to hear their heartfelt appreciation and thanks for us doing this. It’s so remarkable, you really don’t think of it as work.”
Other local churches stage similar pageants each Christmas season. Sardis United Methodist and Dunwoody United Methodist both staged Living Nativity shows. Chamblee United Methodist plans one for 7 p.m. Dec. 19.
But being out in the cold and dark for two hours on an early Saturday and Sunday in December is hard work.
“We have seen rain, sleet, snow, wind, extreme cold – but have never canceled,” said Melanie Kleekamp, who co-directed the event that took place this year on Dec. 4 and 5.
“Over the years, we have had crowds ranging from several hundred a night to over 1,000. And we have anywhere from 50 to 75 amazing people putting forth unbelievable effort to ensure that the community continues to receive the gift of the story of Christmas.”
Sometimes, as with most live events, it takes a bit of improvisation to keep the show on track.
This year, a tree fell less than an hour before the Sunday night show was to begin, Kleekamp said. The fallen tree blocked Mount Paran Road at the church and knocked out power to the building, she said, so the crew borrowed generators and lit candles in the church fellowship hall, where volunteers served cocoa and cookies.
Drivers diverted into the church parking lot by the fallen tree stopped to check out the pageant, Kleekamp said, and visitors commented on how the candlelight made everything attractive. The Living Nativity went on without a hitch. “It just came together inside of an hour,” she said. “It was pretty amazing.”
For 17-year-old Sarah Lynn Woodruff, the hardest work playing her part in St. John’s pageant is staying in character.
She’s had plenty of practice, having appeared since she was little in a variety of roles, including a shepherd girl, an angel and Mary.
“It’s really hard, not being able to speak and standing still for the whole two hours that we do it,” she said. “Being an angel on the roof was really hard. It gets very cold up there.”
Her dad agrees, pointing out that the wind chill on the roof makes being part of the heavenly host one of the toughest assignments.
“Toward the end of the night, you are really cold,” Brent Woodruff said. “But when you see the crowds, you know this is what Christmas is all about. It’s a real joy for us to do it.”