A star hovers over a small town in the Texas hill country. An electric cable winds up a telephone pole to power the glowing white lights that adorn the hanging beacon. The soft glow in the bitter winter chill calls the estimated 27,000 people who will view the young couple and newborn baby who sit beneath it’s glow. Main Street Bethlehem turns 21st century Burnet, Texas into a realistic interpretation of what life during the birth of Christ might have been like.
“We started this in 1993,” said Norman Leftwich, the unofficial event director for the last 18 years. “The first year it was built with temporary buildings and cloth and we took it down after. By 1999, we had every building permanent and the wall around the outside of the complex.”
The plot where the stone and plaster buildings have risen throughout the years belongs to First Baptist Church Burnet, and most of the people who work on the event attend there. Leftwich and his wife Frankie are integral to the success of the event and many of the goats, birds and other livestock live on their ranch during the offseason. But the Leftwich family are not the only contributors. In fact, everything in the village from buildings and chickens to the cookies and refreshments are from contributions.
“All is done by donation, First Baptist Church lets us use the property and they of course contribute in many ways, but it has never been on the budget,” said Leftwich. “Our cave where the holy family stays is a pretty imposing structure built of concrete and steel. A member who makes and designs swimming pools for upper class clients built it to look like real stone. It’s very impressive.”
Within the walls, caves and stone buildings, about 150 people get in costume to portray shoppers, shopkeepers, soldiers, travelers, tax collectors and of course Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. But the number of people on the inside of the wall can’t compete with the number that stretches around the streets of Burnet, waiting in line to see the simulation.
Leftwich estimates a total of 27,000 people that will walk through the gates of Bethlehem over the six nights it is open this year. The city police have to monitor and guide the twisting line as is awakens the sleepy, rural town.
Dr. Ricky Guenther, pastor of First Baptist, sees the event as a mission opportunity to reach all the pilgrims who come to see the display. It is also a highlight for him during the Christmas season. “It was overwhelming at first when I started working here three years ago, but there is a whole great group of people that work together,” he said. “I do a little bit, but when it’s all said and done I get to do what I do best which is walk the line and talk with the people.”
Inside, volunteers embrace their characters, like 17-year-old Erica DePaulo, who works with the goats and pretends to be selling goat milk products. Nathan Turner and his wife portray travelers who have come to Bethlehem for the census. His sons are among a group playing shepherd boys, who climb atop the center city well to proclaim the birth of Christ. One woman’s red robe glitters with gold adornments as she dances in the town tavern. A Pharisee walks coldly in front of the synagogue to the shouts of a merchant trying to part with “the freshest vegetables in town.”
Visitors wander through the town, the carpenters shaving planks and the sparks from the blacksmith’s hammer. Rams and donkeys and camels are a major attraction to the youngest visitors, who can pet the furry inhabitants. The hustle of the town leads to a wooden sign asking for quite as they enter the cave area. Here, in stillness, Mary and Joseph sit with their newborn who often coos and cries as he is held in the arms of his acting mother. Observers stare into the cave, seeing the miracle that the star hanging above has proclaimed.
The baby in Burnet may have as much in common with Christ as the electric star has with one in Orion’s belt, but for the guests, the image is real enough. Often people leave the town in tears.
Now guests have seen the real meaning of Christmas, as the dramatized nativity brings the reality of the story to onlookers in a fresh and first person perspective. As they leave the complex, posters of scripture verses line the exit. When they emerge back into the bitter air of downtown Burnet, greeters like Laura Burton count everyone who comes through the exit, and shows them where the free hot cocoa, coffee and cookies are. She also is willing and eager to talk to anyone interested in Christianity and direct them to someone who can speak with them more. “I don’t do much,” she says, but for First Baptist, seeing people come to Christianity through the help of their portrayal is the ultimate success. But regardless of conversions, the event has a great impact on everyone involved for the last 18 years.
“I don’t miss it,” Guenther said. “My wife and daughter are in Abilene at the wedding of my best friend’s son, but I told them. I can’t miss it. It’s such a joy to be here.”