PORTLAND – This year there was more squirming and whispering than usual in the front pews in the church at 156 High St. at the Christmas Eve service.

But that didn’t appear to bother any of those attending the Friday night celebration at the Immanuel/Williston-West Churches. The pews were filled with the cast for the Nativity scene: nearly 20 children of all ages and sizes dressed as angels, sheep and wise men. For many in the congregation, it was a refreshing change.

“The sounds of kids have been absent from here for a while,” said Milton Ryder of Old Orchard Beach.

Ryder was referring to the merging this year of the Immanuel Baptist Church and its mostly white-haired congregation with the Williston-West Church, a United Church of Christ congregation with a lot of young families.

The merger has brought a whole new energy to the church community, said Mark Calkins of South Portland, a chairman of the deacons of Williston-West. The choir is louder and the weekly Sunday service attendance has doubled.

“This has been a really nice fit,” Calkins said.

On Friday the blended congregation was celebrating its first Christmas Eve together, one of hundreds of churches around the state coming together to celebrate with music and lights.

More than 200 people showed up to watch the Nativity scene, which received star billing in the church service announcement.

As congregants found their seats, Bonny Johnston, 6, of South Portland flitted about in a halo and wings, waiting for her brother, who played the donkey, to join her in costume.

“He looks more like a bunny than a donkey,” she said before spinning off.

Thomas Costin, 10, of South Portland was about to reprise his role as one of the three kings.

“I’m not nervous. I have done this before and I know everyone here,” said Costin.

Sarah Thayer, 8, of Portland could barely contain her excitement as she slipped her costume over her head. She’d clinched the role of Mary.

“I need to carry the baby,” said Sarah.

Her little brother, Cameron, 5, was to play Joseph.

Filling one of the pews toward the back were Stephen Tucker of Old Orchard Beach; his wife, Karen; children, Ethan, 2, and Emily, 6, and their aunt Susan Tucker. Stephen Tucker said they were very tempted to stay home until Emily urged them out into the night.

“She said ‘we have to.’ She insisted,” said Stephen Tucker.

At the church, Emily was recruited at the last minute as an angel in the Nativity scene cast.

Finally it was the children’s big moment. The took their places in the sanctuary, the Rev. Deborah Davis-Johnson helping them find their spots.

The crowd hushed as their minister turned to a passage from the Gospel of Luke.

“Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census be taken of the entire Roman world,” she started.

The Nativity scene had begun.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

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