AFTON — Little children in little hats and adults with scarves wrapped tightly around them, clamored against a wood fence to catch a glimpse of a wise man proclaiming the good news that a savior was born in Bethlehem Village behind Hebron Baptist Church on Friday evening.
More than 100 people had been hard at work since August, creating the village that offers tours today until Tuesday. Volunteers come from the local community, Hebron Baptist and several other area churches to build all the village shops.
Event organizer Ken Bryant said this is the village’s 15th year running, with the first year being in 1999.
In its first year, almost 250 people walked through the village, with handmade shops and actors showing off artisans’ trades from 2,000 years ago. Last year, almost 8,000 people attended.
Bryant said attendees are a mix of locals and people who come from Charlottesville, Lynchburg or Culpeper.
“It steals people away from the commercial aspects of Christmas,” Bryant said, adding the tour and show appeals to both Christians and those who want something that is not commercialized.
Upon starting in a heated tent, attendees are given a “gold” coin in order to pay their taxes to the Roman soldiers and register in the Census, just as Mary and Joseph were said to have done. Attendees then are free to look around at various shops including blacksmiths, olive oil makers and a music shop.
Eventually, after a group has milled around the village area, a chorus of angels start singing hymns and guide attendees to the barn area where the story of Jesus’ birth is told.
Charlotte Faris, of Afton, has played the music shopkeeper in the village since the first Bethlehem Village show. She said she likes seeing the looks on the little children’s faces as they look around.
“What inspires me most is the little kids and adults that come by and say what it means to them. This is what God gives them,” she said.
Neil and Brook Robinson have been driving from Fluvanna County to see the Bethlehem Village since their oldest daughter, Ann Charlotte Robinson, was a baby. Ann Charlotte now is 12 years old, and as she nibbled on a piece of bread, she said her favorite part of the show is the bakery.
“This is what Christmas is all about … to be able to show my kids what it’s about,” Brook Robinson said.
She added she likes when the angels in white robes and frosty, floral crowns walk around the village while singing hymns.
When Robinson’s daughters Ann Charlotte, 10-year-old Sarah Beth and 7-year-old Lila Kate were younger, they were terrified of the Roman soldier characters.
This year’s village featured an elevated barn and manger area, where Mary and Joseph are seated with the baby Jesus. Bryant said in years past, attendees would try to get close to see the couple, and those in the back of the crowd couldn’t see. With the elevated seating, everyone can see the shepherds find the baby in a manger and the three wise men.
A stone’s throw from the manger is a small, fenced area where camels from the Natural Bridge Zoo roam, along with a few other animals that would have been around during Jesus’ birth.
The show is free and open to the public. It is funded through donations from attendees and the churches that participate.
“We want this to be for people who try to get away from getting that perfect gift because, at Christmas, we have the perfect gift,” he said referring to the birth of Jesus.