It takes a village

Producers of this year’s Bethlehem Village are adding more sights, sounds and smells to give visitors the most realistic look at what life was like when Jesus was born.

The parking lot of First Presbyterian Church of Burbank will be the backdrop where volunteers will build sets for a marketplace and the manger for the Dec. 5 and 6 event. More than 150 church volunteers participate as shop owners or working behind the scenes.

As visitors arrive at the village, they will be welcomed by Roman soldiers and directed to census takers who present them with gold coins to spend at the various shops. The event is free. Visitors use the gold coins to purchase items from the bakery, olive and jewelry shops.

Gold coins will fetch pita bread, beaded bracelets and a copy of Billy Graham’s latest book.

For this third year of the event, church volunteers have added blacksmith and fabric shops to the village, said creator Ann-Marie Murrell, of Burbank, who is the co-director of children’s ministries at the church.

Church carpenters have built a blacksmith’s forge that will have mock flames burning while an actor bends the metal to make horseshoes and other items, Murrell said.

“We have a real anvil, hammer and horseshoes we have purchased from a prop house,” she said. “We’ll have the sound of clanging metal, so that’s one thing that will be really cool.”

David Berkey will play the blacksmith. It’s his first time as a participant, and he was just a visitor last year.

“I’m looking forward to having fun with it, getting dressed up and growing a beard,” the Glendale resident said. “My costume is something like what John the Baptist wore.”

To prepare for the role, Berkey is going to explore the Internet.

“I’ll be all ready to be a blacksmith, and it’s going to be exciting,” he said. “This is the first time we’ve had a blacksmith, and I’m honored to be the first one.”

Also new this year is a fabric shop with a working loom where an actress will be weaving cloth, Murrell said.

“That’s going to be really fun,” she said. “I researched and ordered dyes that they will have in bowls and a giant vat, so it looks like they are actually dying fabric.”

People can try on robes and volunteers will talk about the different fabrics they had at the time, Murrell said.

“It’s going to be as historically accurate as possible,” she added. “I wanted this to be real, that people could go and smell the smells and see the colors of fabric, and it would be the way it was back then.”

Making sure the costumes are close to authentic is church member Margaret Bogenschutz’s job. The Burbank resident will be serving as costume director for the first time. So far, 130 costumes have been assigned to characters with 30 more waiting to be assigned, she said.

“My job is assigning costumes to all the participants,” she said. “And that means basically if someone is a shepherd or census taker or wise man, we need to get a costume that fits their character and fits them. We are fitting adults and children.”

Volunteers try to balance the reality of their budget and historical accuracy, Bogenschutz said. Research has told them purple and dark blue fabrics were only for wealthy and powerful people, for instance. And red dye went into fabrics of clothing worn by Roman soldiers or someone with more money, she said.

“The shepherds and most of the people wore plain tan and browns and wool fabric,” she said. “That was natural, the color of the sheep from dark to light.”

Every 30 minutes during the event there will be a production of the nativity, Murrell said. It will begin quietly with Mary and Joseph wandering through the village among the visitors.

“This pregnant woman will be asking visitors where they can stay for the night,” she said. “People won’t know the nativity show is starting until narration starts. We want to keep it as realistic as it can be.”

Murrell’s wish is that visitors will step away from the gift-giving side of the holiday and remember why we celebrate.

“I want it to be about the story of the birth of Jesus,” she said. “To remind people why there is such a thing as Christmas not just about Santa and Christmas gifts. It’s about the birth of Christ.”

Another first for this year’s event is a rising star over the manger, Murrell said.

“It will be about 20 feet in the air, that’s my goal,” she said.

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