November 26, 2011 8:31:00 PM
The thud of a carpenter's hammer and whir of the potter's wheel will meld with other sights, sounds and smells of a re-created Bethlehem village Dec. 2-4, when First Baptist Church in Columbus presents its annual First Christmas each evening from 6-8 p.m.
Visitors are invited to step back in time, to experience the Christmas story in a unique and vibrant way -- in an interactive setting made as authentic as possible, even down to merchants and live animals.
"This is our gift to the community," said event director Diane Gatewood. "Each year we try to add nuances to enhance it, and we try to do things as realistically as possible."
Within sets built and assembled by church members, robed merchants, Roman soldiers and villagers will welcome visitors into the story that unfolded more than 2,000 years ago. Fishmongers, rug sellers and bread bakers will hawk their wares in the bustling "city" erected on the church campus at 202 Seventh St. N.
"Everything is completely outdoors this year," said Bobby Sanderson, First Baptist Church's director of music. "Everything is in the village or underneath a tent outside the church."
Everyone entering will receive three "ancient" Roman coins when they register at the city's "gates."
"One coin will be to pay their taxes with," just as Mary and Joseph would have been required to do, said Sanderson.
He encouraged visitors to look for the star on the church steeple, lit by a powerful search light.
"There is a wonderful story about a grandmother from Alabama who saw the star lit up from a distance one previous year and said, 'I don't know what that is,' but she loaded up her grandkids and said, 'We're gonna find out,'" the music director said, smiling.
It takes 200 or more volunteers to bring First Baptist's "Bethlehem" to life. Jack Marshall is one of them. He rallies 35 or so fellow church members to help with registration of guests, traffic and security.
"When people register, we get an idea of where everybody is coming from; it's amazing how far off some of them do come," said Marshall, who will also act as a guide through the village.
"This is an opportunity to serve my church," he added. "It takes a lot of people to make it happen, and everybody is willing to help."
Gatewood remarked, "We call this 'First Christmas' because it is the story of the first Christmas -- and because we are First Baptist Church. This is our way of allowing people the opportunity to understand what we are celebrating."
Sanderson added, "We never get tired of telling the old, old story about the first Christmas. It's not about Black Friday, it's not about gifts we buy; it's about the greatest gift that was ever given."
First Christmas is free and open to all ages. Complimentary refreshments will be served. Hours are from 6-8 p.m. each evening, but those in line at 8 p.m. will not be turned away.
For more information, contact the church office at 662-328-3915.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.