Amidst the COVID pandemic, we all have had to get creative to keep our traditions going. Since our cars provide a convenient health and safety bubble, we’ve seen everything from drive-through high school graduations to drive-in church services this year.
A trend that was already growing but is sure to increase in popularity this holiday season is the drive-through live nativity scene. Although these presentations vary broadly in their size and scope, drive-through nativity scenes are just like what they sound. Actors and animals portray the story of Jesus’ birth in one or more scenes as people drive up or drive by to watch.
The idea of a living nativity reenactment dates all the way back to 1223. St. Francis of Assisi combined his love of animals and the outdoors to create a live nativity display as a way to explain the birth of Jesus to his followers. Historians believe St. Francis only had two live characters—an ox and a donkey—is that first creche. He placed an icon of the Christ child in a straw-filled manger. In his book Francis of Assisi: The Life, Augustine Thompson wrote about the first live nativity this way: “On Christmas night, the townspeople gathered by torchlight to contemplate the scene.”
Today’s live nativities range from the humble to the extravagant. Some include Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, and an animal or two. Others have a series of scenes with a large cast of people playing shepherds, angels, and the Magi, as well as a menagerie of camels, cows, donkeys, and sheep. Many of the large presentations offer Scripture readings, live musicians, caroling, and refreshments for visitors.
Animals at live nativities are a big draw, especially for children, but they can cause some havoc for church volunteers. For example, in 2017, Stormy, the cow escaped twice from her live nativity quarters at Old First Reformed Church of Christ in Philadelphia. Both times she made her way to Interstate 95 before she could be safely corralled and brought back to the church.
To prevent a third escape, organizers replaced the wayward Stormy with a smaller cow named Ginger. On the bright side, Philadelphia residents had fun posting about Stormy’s antics on Twitter, and the drive-through nativity got some unexpected publicity.
Some churches have canceled their annual walk-through nativities this year out of health concerns. For example, the Mount Laurel Living Nativity, a 25-year ministry of Fellowship Community Church in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, recently posted this explanation on its website: “After much deliberation, we have decided not to run the Living Nativity due to the ongoing health crisis. We’re very disappointed not to be hosting it again for you this year. But our reason for celebrating still exists! Have a very Merry Christmas.”
Other churches are making the transition from a walk-through version to a drive-through version. The Jennings Road Church of Christ in Van Wert, Ohio, decided to offer this kind of socially-distant combination event on one night with expanded hours, instead of their usual two nights. The church has been mounting a costumed live nativity for the past two decades.
“Much of what you see is from the warm comfort of your car,” Pastor David Ray said in an interview about the event.” This year, we have to take into account every precaution we can to protect visitors, and church members, to keep them safe.
“So many have told us the value this event brings to their holiday celebrations,” Ray continued. “We wanted to let people know that during a time when so many things have had to be canceled, it is our goal to make sure this is something families can look forward to.”
Ray mentioned that live animals, especially the ever-popular camels, will be part of this year’s drive-through event.
The First United Methodist Church of Carson City, Nevada, has hosted a drive-through nativity each December since 2001, and this year will be no different. On its website, the church writes, “Our church has been presenting the Drive-Through Living Nativity as our gift to our community since 2001, the year of 9/11. Its message is one of hope for the future and a reminder of God’s everlasting love for us. This year, again, the world is in turmoil and thus in need of God’s message more than ever.”
The church’s previous events have featured 800 luminarias lighting an entire city block for drivers to enjoy 10 scenes representing The Road to Bethlehem. In previous years, nearly 200 people have participated along with a group of donkeys, cows, and sheep.
Check your local newspaper or community websites to see if there is a drive-through nativity happening in your area this year. With so many holiday activities canceled because of the pandemic, these free events are a perfect way to maintain health and safety guidelines while celebrating the real reason for the season.