Live nativity scene offers peace to visitors, actors

CLAYTON — Welcoming nearly 600 visitors, Ewell’s-St. Paul United Methodist Church in Clayton hosted its third year of a live nativity scene Dec. 10-12. The event’s director JoEllyn Beck said that the visitor total is up from the first year when they had 300 people.

“We had about 600 last year as well,” she said. “I think we would have had even more this year but the forecasts spooked some people. They were saying it was going to be really cold.”

It was cold enough though, she said, for her 60 actor/participants who all played a role in the event. She enlisted the help of the church’s congregation to portray shepherds, angels, innkeepers, Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus. There was also a full crew of volunteers working in the church to prepare all the refreshments.

“Our actors were out there from 6 to 8 p.m. each night so it did get chilly,” said Ms. Beck. “I went to Walmart quite a few times to buy hand-warmers and I walked around with a basket of them to pass out.”

Ms. Beck, along with co-director Sherri Hudson, started the new tradition of holding the live nativity at their church’s past minister’s suggestion. The two Smyrna residents start rallying volunteers a few months in advance by posting in the church bulletin. The sewing and wardrobe committee begins its work on costumes as early as September.

From left, Sherry Spencer as the Angel, Olivia Spencer as Mary, Liam Knight as baby Jesus, Tim Hearne as Joseph and Jen Willey as the Harp Angel during the Silent Night Holy Night – ‘A Living Nativity’ at Ewell’s-St.Paul United Methodist Church in Clayton. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“We have some costumes already, but we keep adding new ones every year,” she said.

When visitors arrived, they were ushered on to the church ground by guides, who welcomed them to Bethlehem, and offered hot chocolate and cookies by servants, she said. Then they strolled down a pathway lit by luminaries.

Sally Bowman spins wool during the Silent Night Holy Night – ‘A Living Nativity’ at Ewell’s-St.Paul United Methodist Church in Clayton. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

This year, Ms. Beck was excited to have included two local artisans to participate in the scene. Wool-spinner Sally Bowman and woodworker Rick Shuman were hard at work on period-appropriate crafts while visitors passed.

“Rick was actually making spoons out of tree limbs with some really primitive tools,” said Ms. Beck. “Sally was spinning wool that was fresh from a sheep and knitting little ornaments.”

After passing the artisans, visitors came upon a camp fire staffed by shepherds, sheep, goats and a donkey.

“The animals were provided by Party Animals from Sudlersville, so they were used to being pet by children,” said Ms. Beck.

At that point, visitors met with the Innkeeper and his wife. One of the innkeepers was portrayed by Smyrna resident and congregation member, Dan Escherich.

Although a bit apprehensive at first about acting in a role, the experience profoundly moved him, he said.

“After the first night of acting as the innkeeper, because of the excited and spiritual reaction of the people who came through, I knew right away that I wanted to come back and do it again next year,” he added.

Rick Schuman, left, chops wood as Cameron Bullock watches during the Silent Night Holy Night – ‘A Living Nativity’ at Ewell’s-St.Paul United Methodist Church in Clayton. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

On their approach, Mr. Escherich said it was his role to introduce himself as his character, Ezra, and his character’s wife, Esther.

“My lines were basically: A young couple has just come in from Nazareth and we didn’t have any room, but we cleaned out the stable and made them comfortable,” he said. “I believe her name is Mary, her husband is Joseph and she was with child. Before we knew it though, the child was born and they named it Jesus.”

In recalling the faces and expressions of visitors, parents and children alike, Mr. Escherich said the experience brought him a peace that he’d never felt before.

Christine Letterman with goats during the Silent Night Holy Night – ‘A Living Nativity’ at Ewell’s-St.Paul United Methodist Church in Clayton. I(Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Ms. Beck recalls being charmed when a boy who was visiting piped up after hearing the innkeeper’s speech about not having room at the inn and said: “They can come home with me! We have room!”

In the makeshift stable assembled from tree limbs and a tent, the actors playing Mary, Joseph, Jesus and two angels joined visitors in singing a verse from silent night.

“Jesus was played by a baby named Liam,” said Ms. Beck. “One of our angels, Jen Willey, played on her harp too, it was beautiful. A number of people in tears, it was very moving.

“After that there was a chapel available for people to go in and meditate.”

The event was free, but the church collected donations for Code Purple. Residents looking to attend the event next year can expect it to be scheduled the second weekend of December as it has been in previous years.

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or

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