Bethlehem A.D., a living nativity event that allows visitors to “experience” life in the village where Jesus was born, will be presented later this month for the 30th—and perhaps the last—time. The vacant lot on Middlefield Road where volunteers build a Judean village and populate it with biblical characters has been sold for a proposed very-low-income housing development.
Unless organizers locate another site and new leadership, the popular family-oriented event may not return after this year’s three-night run, December 21-23.
“Whether or not we’re able to move the project somewhere else is totally up in the air,” says Paula Dresden, Bethlehem A.D.’s director. “At this point, I have no plans of doing that.”
She and her husband, Karl, have been heavily involved with the event from the beginning. The couple will be “totally willing to come alongside and mentor somebody, but carrying this full load,” Paula says, “I think it’s our last year.”
A Trip Back in Time
Bethlehem A.D. is unusual in that people get to walk through a historical reenactment, among King Herod and his entourage, rabbis teaching from the Torah, dancers from the 12 tribes of Israel and vendors selling bread, spices and pottery. Organizers strive for authenticity and an event that is informative and enjoyable to people of all faiths—or of no faith.
Barnyard animals, including sheep and donkeys, camels and birds, take up residence among the bales of hay, along a pathway that leads to the tour’s culmination—the manger scene with Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. Angels on top of the stable dance continuously.
Members of a Roman military reenactment group called Legio X Fretensis once again will appear in their armor and set up their barracks in Redwood City. This year, a gate will be opened so visitors waiting in line can talk with them. They’ll also be able to see the angel Gabriel, attired in shining robes, announcing Christ’s birth.
“People get afraid of the (long) line, but the line is actually very fun,” Dresden says. “Usually, it doesn’t take that long to get in. … So if they see a line, they should just consider it a part of the program.”
Bethlehem A.D. is free, although visitors can drop donations into baskets at the event or contribute online. Hours are 6:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., rain or shine. Parking will be available in the Kaiser Permanente Center garage on Veterans Boulevard, and shuttle buses will bring visitors to the event at 1300 Middlefield Road. Disabled and elderly people can ride through the “village” in golf carts that will be provided.
About 300 participants make Bethlehem A.D. happen, and Dresden encourages volunteers to contact firstname.lastname@example.org. “We have holes to fill,” she says. “We need actors, for sure.”
Rise City Church, which owned the lot where the event takes place, sold it several months ago to Sand Hill Property Co. The developer has submitted plans to Redwood City for 94 units of “100-percent affordable” housing in a seven-story structure.
The sale proceeds will allow the church to make upgrades and renovations, according to Pastor Derik Scott. Selling the lot was a big decision for the church, he says, but members desire to do more for the community, and affordable housing clearly is needed.
Scott says church leaders fully intend for Bethlehem A.D. to continue. They want to think “creatively” about how that can happen, possibly at the church, and want to hear how the Dresdens, who are church members, feel.
Paula Dresden has mixed feelings about not putting on Bethlehem A.D., which kept her busy 10 months of the year. “Of course, we’ll miss it,” she says. “Thirty years. It’s been like a child to me. We don’t have any kids … I’ll just have to transition. It’ll be like the empty nest syndrome.”