For many, the day after Thanksgiving is a time for putting up holiday decorations. Typically, that’s a one or two-person job. But for the Chestnut Street Baptist Church in Camden, it takes a village.

Congregants formed a line, reminiscent of a bucket brigade, Sunday to convey more than 30 large bins and other furnishings from an upper level storage area to rooms below. The boxes contain seasonal props that help interpret the church’s annual Christmas gift to the community – an 8,000-plus-square- foot living Nativity scene.

For nearly two decades, the church’s Walk Through Bethlehem has drawn crowds of up to 1,600 people on the first full weekend in December. The grand-scale endeavor requires nearly 80 volunteers and a week to put together.

By Friday, much of the church’s interior will be transformed into a massive scene resembling first century Bethlehem, replete with period re-enactors, live animals and – yes – a real baby.

Wooden structures will be erected and draped with colorful fabrics. And painted murals – some 50 feet long, featuring scenes of pastureland, grazing sheep and stone walls – will be hung to create a more authentic backdrop.

Longtime congregant Julie Crane has volunteered at the event since its inception. She coordinates with people like Joel and Sally Moore of Union, who supply the live animals for the tour, and works with a crew to inspect and retouch the murals with fresh paint each year as needed. Crane also will operate a spinning wheel, in period costume, for the ancient Bethlehem marketplace to be set up in the church’s gymnasium.

“It has this very authentic feel to it – from the smell of the old fabrics, hay and animals to the (people appearing) in character to sell their wares,” said Crane of the market scene. “It can seem like an overwhelming task to put it all together, but it’s amazing how smoothly and well it goes.”

Crane said there were no plans initially to make the Bethlehem Walk an annual event. But the large crowds coming through that first year stunned the producers. Now, church volunteers make yearly improvements to the scenery and dramatizations to enhance the experience. This year, drama director Sue Foltz will freshen up planned vignettes to offer returning guests something they haven’t seen before.

The walk begins in the church’s seasonally bedecked sanctuary, where Christmas music is performed as visitors wait their turn for the tour to begin.

Periodically, a Roman centurion enters the sanctuary, beckoning small groups to follow him on a journey through numerous rooms that feature scripted portrayals interpreting the biblical narrative of Jesus’ birth – from Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming king to the baby in a manger. The tour lasts about 45 minutes.

Pastor Adam Kohlstrom recalled his first walk through the pageantry 12 years ago.

“I was awed by the amount of time and attention to detail that went into planning it,” said Kohlstrom. “The way it brings our entire church family together is something very special.”

These days, Kohlstrom narrates the final scene at the stable, sharing the meaning of Christmas from a Christian perspective.

“My role is to bring visitors out of Bethlehem and back to the present (while posing the question), how does the message fit into the modern world?” Kohlstrom said.

As the last guests exit on Saturday night, another little miracle happens. In just three hours, the entire display will be disassembled, packed up and returned to storage, leaving no trace that the spectacle ever happened.

Crane said seeing the generations of people who annually attend the walk is worth the effort.

“There are years when no one wants to do it,” said Crane. “It’s a busy time of year, and there are lots of moving parts. But then there is a resurgence of excitement and a thankfulness to be able to offer this. What it represents to people is very special.”


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