“I got to thinking maybe we could unite all of our churches in telling an old story.”
– Linda McNabb, United Church Choir Director
A burst of laughter rolls down a snowy street, then fades away under a darkening sky.
The sound has come from just outside the doors of the United Church where men, women and children, wearing turbans and tunics over their tuques and parkas, huddle around a big bonfire with an assortment of live sheep and donkeys.
Keeping watch and trying to keep warm, they are among a cast of characters here Dec. 7 to transform their small Parkland town to another place in time – Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth.
They’re awaiting word from an angel.
. . .
Townsfolk have been anticipating this night since late fall. That’s when they looked to another angel in their midst – United Church choir director Linda McNabb. She’d urged her community’s churches to join together and stage this outdoor, live-animal pageant.
The United Church has performed the nativity story itself for years. But in recent times, it has come up short of people to carry on. Then a friend visiting from Endeavor, Sask. gave Linda an idea.
“She came to borrow a little donkey from us,” explains Linda. (The McNabbs raise a certain breed of donkey – the Sicilian Mediterranean which has a distinctive cross on its back.) Linda’s friend described how she needed the donkey for Endeavor’s own outdoor pageant, jointly hosted by local churches. Horse-drawn wagons carry the audience from church to church.
Linda had a vision of her own right then and there.
“I thought ‘if they could do that in their little town of Endeavor (a place considerably smaller than Gilbert) maybe we could do something like that too,” she said. “I got to thinking maybe we could unite all of our churches in telling an old story.”
There are six churches in Gilbert (pop. 750) – the United Church, the Roman Catholic, the Ukrainian Catholic, the Ukrainian Orthodox, the Anglican and Full Gospel. Linda called a meeting. All sent delegates. They agreed “A Journey to Bethlehem” was a splendid idea and began to spread the word.
. . .
It begins on the clear evening in early December; the mercury has plummeted to a brutal -20C. Yet, no one seems to mind the toe-numbing chill. There’s a sense of expectation and fun. “We’re used to this,” says one affable shepherd, blinking back frost around his eyes. Farm work keeps many of them outdoors much of the time.
Wagons pulled by teams of heavy horses begin to depart from the school grounds at dusk. One of the narrators, local farmer David Manchur, dressed in Middle Eastern garb, raises his voice to be heard above the din of horse bells.
“Once upon a time,” he begins, “over 2,000 years ago, in the little town of Nazareth, in the country of Galilee, in the land of Palestine…. at that time the people were poor and there was trouble
Christmas Story /
throughout the land. Many people had forgotten about God. But God had a plan that was going to change their life forever….”
The cast is divided into stations at the churches. Each represents a segment of Jesus’ birth story. As the evening progresses, lines are delivered effortlessly. The dramatic outdoor scenes take on inexplicable authenticity.
At the Roman Catholic Church burning torches line the sidewalk to its doors. A seething King Herod is seated at the entrance. “There is no King but I,” he shouts, indignant, at the three wise men who’ve approached him under a beaming street light.
The wagon rolls along. On the front steps of the Anglican Church, an angel lets Mary in on the celestial secret. “What shall I tell Joseph?” she implores the people in the wagons.
Behind the Legion Hall the wagons are halted by Roman soldiers on horseback.
“There’s no room,” the stout innkeeper says sternly, waving a very pregnant woman and her husband away at the doors of the Full Gospel Church.
The couple turns and leads their frosty-eyelashed donkey behind the church.
. . .
In all, around 125 people, drawn from each of the churches, help tell the story – as narrators, as Women at the Well, as the Prophet Isaiah (who has dispatched the audiences in wagons roughly every 20 minutes at the elementary school). Many more have helped in other ways – costume making, baking and serving food, setting up scenes, driving the wagons and looking after the food and water needs of the cast’s four-footed members.
Families dressed as in biblical times walk slowly through the snowy streets, alongside the wagons. No cars interrupt the scene. The only sounds are the crunch of footsteps on snow – and the horses’ bells.
Everyone is going in the same direction – to Bethlehem, which is at the brightly lit United Church. Here the shepherds on their chilly watch, turn to listen to the angel.
Here the journey ends. The audience steps down from their wagons, and files into the church. They’re greeted by a singing choir, and most vividly, the sight of a wide-awake and very real baby squirming in the manger. He’s a local baby and Mom and Dad are on either side of him.
. . .
Linda McNabb is in the tinsel-decked choir, and invites everyone to stay for food in the hall afterward. She’s happy to know things have gone well this evening.
Actually, they do this sort of thing often in Gilbert, she tells a visitor. That is to say, people around here always willingly offer their time, talent and skill to entertain, enlighten, inspire and otherwise care for one another. The rest of the year they do it in other ways.
This night it was by reliving this story, in their own unique and distinctly rural way – with half the town involved and the other half in wagons.
For more photos, see the Manitoba Co-operator website: www.manitobacooperator.ca.