With the holidays just around the corner, Hebron Baptist Church and its partners are working hard to ensure one of the biggest annual traditions will happen.
Bethlehem Village at Hebron Baptist Church attracts thousands of tourists every December from all over the United States and various countries around the world and shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.
For over 20 years, the church in Afton has been recreating the night of Jesus Christ’s birth in Bethlehem for the public to experience. Those walking through the gates of the grounds, after paying the Roman soldiers “taxes,” are brought back in time with the sounds and smells of Bethlehem on the night the savior was born. This year, from Dec. 13 through 17, the Bethlehem Village will be teeming with life from local tradespeople that would have been around back then, like blacksmiths and other artisans, to animals like camels and goats.
Stacey Johnson, co-director of the village, said they start planning about year ahead of time. This year, a few changes were made to improve the event overall. New plaques in languages like Hebrew and Greek read “Bethlehem” for those entering the village. After getting through the welcome tent, a tall sign with directions “for perspective” Johnson said points to locations near Bethlehem like Babylon, a kingdom in ancient Mesopotamia, the Dead Sea, and of course up to Heaven.
To the left, a newly built jail next to a stockade has been created for guests to experience. As guests wander, they can find new attractions, warm fires, and of course witness the birth of Jesus.
“We have rebuilt the olive press, built a new jail for the Roman soldiers to patrol, and did some renovations that needed to be done,” Johnson said.
The renovations and new additions were done by the church’s partner Piney Mountain Ministries in Beech Grove. Renovations began months before the annual event to make sure everything was set to go for opening night on Dec. 13. A newly painted chariot is also available for photo opportunities. A new well is on the property and the blacksmith stall, a usual crowd favorite, is run by a Nelson County High School graduate.
“His interest started in the high school with Mr. Fanelli’s class,” Johnson said.
Amy Jackson, Bethlehem Village co-director, said this event is important to the public.
“It’s important to learn about the birth of Jesus Christ,” Jackson said.
Two high school students, Rylee Truslow and Samantha Spitler, are portraying Mary this year. Joseph will be played by a few people from Piney Mountain Ministries, including Jarrett Tyree. Each night, the recreation of Jesus’s birth will be portrayed numerous times to make sure everyone can witness the miracle.
The village in total has at least 100 costumed characters each year between the cast and crew, and Johnson said anyone can volunteer to join. The goats and sheep, along with the donkey and the camels are rented from the Natural Bridge Zoo each year and Jackson brings her chickens. Johnson said the Natural Bridge Zoo has lent them the same camels for the past few years, including one named “Tippy.”
“The setup includes putting out the benches, fencing, cleaning out the shops, and putting up tents before the village opens,” Johnson said.
By the first week of December, the village was almost complete, ready to welcome another year of guests.
“It’s become a tradition for everyone and that’s really what Christmas is all about,” Johnson said.
Erin Conway covers Nelson County for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5524.