"We might even have a little bleat to go with the program," worship pastor Ray Lloyd said, laughing gently at any input from the anticipated baby lamb. "We'll have two babies in the program, really."
Practices and arrangements may have started in October, but it isn't until mid-December that the spirit of Christmas visits area churches in the form of straw, rough-hewn wood and shepherds tending flocks real and imagined.
The live Nativity tells the Christmas story with one image, one scene, but the story goes much deeper and further than the iconic stable and manger in which a babe was wrapped in swaddling cloth. By adding music, a storyteller and even a bazaar from biblical times, pastors hope that living Nativity scenes will inspire people to remember the spirit of Christmas year-round.
"While Christ was born a babe in that stable, he didn't stay there," said Rev. Brad Williams of Greenbrier Road Baptist Church, which will re-create the town of Bethlehem on the lower church lawn right off Greenbrier-Dear Road in Golden Springs. "The birth of Christ takes you right through to the Crucifixion. There's so much more to the story.
"This is just the beginning."
In Eulaton, the First Baptist Church will have a riding tour through different scenes of the life of Christ, form his conception up to the Crucifixion. Visitors will meet in the sanctuary, then go outside where the Angel tells Mary she's about to conceive. They'll visit various scenes in Christ's life, from the time Mary gives birth until he's crucified.
The story is told through carols and narration, then it's back to the fellowship hall for hot chocolate.
The classic Nativity re-enactment is one that has been treasured for years in churches large and small. Children are often called on to fill the roles of Mary and Joseph, and a baby doll stands in for the baby Jesus if a younger brother or sister can't be trusted not to squirm off the manger. Shepherds, sticks or canes in hand, shuffle down the aisle in oversized bathrobes with towels draped on their heads. Angel wings, called on for at least two generations, get a little dented, and halos don't always hang straight.
In farm country, rounding up a cow, goat, sheep or donkey is the easy part of Nativity, as is providing hay, straw and the atmosphere of a simple rural life. The quiet surrounds such settings, and any music or narration would seem harsh, even out of place. Simplicity — not always easy to find in this busy world — sets the tone for a reverent mood.
After all, preachers say: This is the Savior's birth — a time when peace came into a troubled world.
"We want it to be very warm, very welcoming," Lloyd said of the program at Golden Springs Baptist, which will be Sunday at 4 p.m. and again at 6 p.m. inside the sanctuary.
The church choir and narration will accompany the traditional members of a Nativity. Playing the role of Mary will be Shelley Jennings, a friend of Lloyd's from the music industry. Her infant daughter, Annie, will represent Jesus.
"It's just real special that Mary will actually get to hold her own baby," Lloyd said. "We hope it will be a real special service."
He hopes the program will remind people that, even though actors play the characters, those roles were once filled by real people: the Virgin Mary, Joseph as Jesus' earthly father, the shepherds who bore witness to his birth and the Wise Men who later brought him gifts of celebration.
"You want people to see that Christ is with us," Williams explained. "You want them to remember, 'and lo, I am with you always.'"
At Greenbrier Road Baptist, the scene will be outdoors, a street in Bethlehem that ends at the stable. The town would have been exploding at the seams in the days leading up to Jesus' birth, and the church hopes to re-create that mood, said Mary Jones, who is coordinating the drama performance.
"All the people were there for the census, all the crowds — remember this was a small town — they would have been overhearing about this baby being born," Jones said. "We want people to feel that."
There would have been crowds, as evidenced by the famous innkeeper who had no room for Mary and Joseph. It might be easy to cast the innkeeper as the villain of the hour, and many movies and children's Christmas programs have done that.
But, Williams said, he was probably as overwhelmed as the rest of the townspeople.
"I can imagine this guy just about to pull his hair out, people asking him over and over again for something he can't do," Williams said. "When you don't have room, you don't have room.
"Maybe that's another message to take away — the message of do we have room for Christ?"
Live nativity programsGolden Springs Baptist Church: 4 and 6 p.m. Sunday, 3 Robertson Road, Anniston, 236-1325.
Eulaton First Baptist Church: 6-9 p.m. today and Dec. 18-19, 1835 Gate 8 Road, Anniston, 236-5489. Canceled in case of rain. Groups of 10 or more should call ahead.
Greenbrier Road Baptist Church: 6, 7 and 8 p.m. Dec. 18-21, 1235 Greenbrier Dear Road, Anniston, 831-8854.