Kenai Peninsula residents had the chance to travel back in time 2,000 years this weekend.
More than 150 members of the College Heights Baptist Church in the Kalifornsky Beach area recreated the ancient city of Bethlehem. Many residents attended the church’s third year of “Bethlehem Revisited.”
Church members in costume greeted guests at the event while scarcely breaking from their roles as Jewish vendors, beggars and Roman soldiers. The church members said reaching the community and sharing the true meaning of Christmas makes the event special.
Guests started at the census booth, because entering the city meant time to pay taxes. Children were given shekels after signing the census. And before entering the city gates to the recreated market place King Herod the Great — played by associate pastor Tim Bruno — greeted the travelers.
“Children I have a request of you,” he said. “There is another boy in Bethlehem claiming to be the king of the Jews, but I am the king. So, if you find him bring word to Herod and you will be richly rewarded. The temple is newly refurbished, so please visit before you leave Bethlehem. Thank you for coming. Pay your taxes for the glory of Rome.”
He waved the group of visitors off with a lack of interest. Bruno said it was his first year as the king, and he was quite enjoying himself. “It’s fun to be a character, and also I like the power,” Bruno said. “You get to boss people around and have fun with them as they come in.”
People have certain Christmas traditions, but it is important to celebrate how it originated, he said. Upon entering the city, guests visited over a dozen booths decorated with the church members’ own supplies. Animals, such as sheep, chickens and donkeys, roamed the grounds. Standing in front of the pottery stand holding a chicken was Kay Gardner. She organized the booths, letting church members choose the roles that piqued their interest and for which they had supplies. The church also buys decorations for the event. Gardner received discounts from Bargain Basement in Kenai, Salvation Army and Bishop’s Attic in Soldotna.
“I came out of Bargain Basement with boxes of stuff,” she exclaimed. “All the thrift stores have been really good at helping us out with the event.”
“Bethlehem Revisited” brought together the 250-member church as a family, she said. “This is what makes our Christmas,” she said. “It’s not about spending money and buying gifts. It’s all about the people, coming together and enjoying the night.”
She said she holds the chicken, which calmly sat nestled in her right arm, because it attracts the attention of the younger visitors. Children ran around the market place, visiting the bakery, the bead shop and the Hebrew alphabet school. They also played in the makeshift jail, where guests were sent if they did not give one of their shekels to the tax collectors. Tax Collector Dave Petersen said kids are genuinely surprised when asked to pay taxes.
“It’s kind of a shock for some of these kids when we ask for (a shekel),” he said. “They look up at their parents like ‘Do I have to?’ I just tell them I’ll have to get the soldiers and take them to jail.”
Petersen — the tax collector — said he thinks it’s important for people to take a step back from our materialistic culture and get back to the basics of Christmas.
Guests taking refuge from the winter night’s cold huddled around fires in the center of the market place. Blair Martin, his wife Ronna and their daughter D. Anne glanced around, admiring the sights and sounds. Martin lent lamas and a horse to the church for the event. He said his family isn’t members of the church, but they do enjoy getting together and attending the event.
“We came to visit our critters, but also we have three families here, extended family,” he said. “I like the church’s attempt at getting some authentic representation. I think it feels like this could be a 2,000-year-old village.”
Families attended the event as well as participated. Church member Travis McCullough and his family have volunteered for “Bethlehem Revisited” all three years. This year, McCullough played the role of innkeeper. He said he acted as Joseph, husband of Mary, and a Roman soldier in previous years. Whatever is needed, he said.
The interaction with people, the authentic feel and serving his church keeps him coming back, he said. “I like giving (people) a perspective as to what it was like back then,” he said as his 6-year-old daughter Sydney and 8-year-old son Bryce ran around the market in costume.
In close proximity to the inn was a stage at which every half hour the birth of Jesus was re-enacted. The many attendees sat on blocks of hay while Mary and Joseph admired the newly born baby and a choir sang in the background.
Following visitation of the recreated Bethlehem visitors were invited inside the church for a series of workshops displaying the life of Jesus. The previous two years of the event were tremendous, said Becky Moore, event organizer. Thousands of people attended the event, she said. Such a large undertaking is taxing, however, and the church has discussed holding the event every other year.
“Bethlehem Revisited” is occurring now through Monday from 5-8 p.m. Admission is free.
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at email@example.com.