Through the inspiration of Dr. Andrea Row bottom of Grace Church, the Nativity pageant “On the Way to Bethlehem” has become an annual tradition since 2001 in our town. The pageant is the major project of Milton Area Christian Churches Working Together. Andrea explained that: “The pageant is a three night performance staged at the historic Country Heritage Park, Milton, regardless of the weather, until this year: Friday and Saturday nights were very successful with good weather then on Sunday the weather changed; freezing rain, high winds and snow not only created dangerous driving conditions but destroyed several of our scenes. For the first time ever – we were forced to close.”
On the Way to Bethlehem’ is an outdoor Christmas Nativity Pageant. On arrival (so their website states) ‘visitors enter the large reception area (Gambrel Barn), enjoy the music of the mass choir, and when ready, groups travel the road to Bethlehem with a ‘guide.’ On their 30–45 minute journey, visitors witness King Herod’s court; interact with Roman soldiers, shepherds, magi, innkeepers and fellow travelers to reveal the Christmas story.’
“The rural setting of the park with its dirt roadways and rustic buildings” Dr. Rowbottom says, “provides an ideal setting to ‘Journey to Bethlehem.’ Over the years the pageant has welcomed nearly 65,000 visitors. As visitors assemble in the Gambrel Barn they are warmed by the joyous music of a massed choir. As the people make their way to the far exit of the barn, they form groups averaging 25 people; they are given a passport in preparation to travel to Bethlehem as a “family”, led by a guide who interacts with the ‘family’ giving historical and biblical background which relates to the story.”
Pete Shermet recalls: “My first year as a cast member, I was a Roman Soldier…we would shout out ‘Halt who goes there and what is the purpose of your travels?’ We’d interact with the travellers, stamp their passports and allow them to continue on their way… During that first presentation it was -20C and we were totally out in the open with substantial winds blowing, I had a snow mobile suit on under my costume as well as snowmobile boots and froze my buns off.
Another year I was asked to play Joseph and fill in for a cast member who had fallen ill.
I was in an enclosure with a pregnant Mary and ‘The Donkey’… My instructions for the donkey were to keep the kids fingers away from the donkey’s mouth and their bodies away from the kicking end ….They gave me a large shepherds crook to do that, but at some point near the end of the evening the donkey took exception to being maneuvered and bit me on my thigh, boy did it hurt and the next day I had a huge bruise.”
Choir member John S. Kay recalls how he was asked if he’d like to participate. He says, “I was welcomed as a tenor by kind men of faith who were friendly and welcoming. It turned out to be a faith promoting experience…I plan to participate every year from now on…and bring others into this uplifting volunteer opportunity!”
The choir that entertains the visitors who await their turn to proceed ‘On the Way to Bethlehem’ is made up of volunteers from local churches. They have a selection of Christmas carols which take over an hour to sing. They have been led over the years by a variety of talented music directors and spirited local musicians who play on flutes, violins, keyboard and occasional hand bells. After singing through their repertoire the choir begins again and continues to sing until the last group has proceeded out of the Gambrel Barn into the night and the world of the Nativity story. The darkness outside is interspaced with tableaux depicting the various parts of the New Testament story of the birth of Jesus. A real camel and other animals led by costumed characters wander around the Country Heritage Park grounds as groups of visitors follow the path which eventually ends at the stable where Mary and Joseph and a sleeping baby sit in the hay, in the midst of little angels, who sweetly sing. The travellers spend a silent moment to absorb the ambiance of the rustic manager scene as the manger choir softly sings “Still, still, still; the night is cold and chill!”
At the end of the “journey” visitors take a short walk along a lantern lit walkway to the refreshment area. Once inside the visitors are offered a hot drink and cookies, have their passports stamped and the children receive an edition of a colouring book, a remembrance of their visit. Finally visitors enjoy a tractor-pulled wagon ride back to the exit. Roman soldiers escort them to the parking lot.
“There are over 175 cast members in the pageant,” explains Dr. Rowbottom,”each with a distinctly individualized costume depicting their role or rank in Biblical society. On the Way to Bethlehem is truly a community effort with over 500 volunteers responsible for a myriad of jobs and representative of nearly 20 local churches and over 60 sponsors. The dedicated volunteers who give of their time, talents and energy to produce our nativity pageant – their gift to the community and beyond and above all – to the Glory of God…There are many examples of dedicated people who have been a Nativity volunteer for many years. We are blessed to have so many people giving of their time and talents to keep Christ in Christmas for our nearly 4,000 visitors each year. (In December 2020)…won’t you journey with us to Bethlehem?” Visit the web site at onthewaytobethlehem.ca