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Bethel Baptist brings meaning of Christmas to life with live Nativity tradition
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Wise men, shepherds and angels gather around the stable to welcome the birth of Jesus at the live nativity show performed in the woods surrounding Bethel Baptist Church. - photo by Jessica Taylor

It’s not Christmas in Dawsonville without a live nativity.

“My daughter said it wouldn’t be Christmas without it,” said Tracy Phillips, who coordinates the live nativity at Bethel Baptist Church.

For the past 32 years, the church has come together to produce a live nativity spectacle for the community for two nights every December to highlight the true meaning of Christmas.

“The presentation through the years has evolved and improved yet the message is the same message we started with,” said Gary Vaughters, who oversees the shepherds in the production.

When the production first began in the late 1980s, Vaughters remembers it being a small nine scene show around the cemetery across Hwy. 136 from the main church building, and only two cars could drive through at a time.

“The first years that we did it, if we had a couple hundred people that came through we thought we were doing good,” Vaughters said.

Now, it’s not uncommon for nearly 2,000 people to come see the show that features the life of Jesus Christ, from the prophecy of his birth to his resurrection and ascension to Heaven.

The annual production has grown since its original inception, with more scenes, more actors and more effects tucked away in the church’s wooded property. The program is an approximately 45 minute wagon ride pulled by tractors.

Pulling together an immersive live nativity scene takes the effort of the entire 250-member congregation along with any volunteers who wish to lend a helping hand.

“It takes the whole church, plus some recruits, volunteers to make it happen. It is a whole church effort,” Phillips said. “They do really good with it, everybody does. It takes a lot of infrastructure to get it ready and then it takes a lot of participation to get it ready.”

Beginning in the fall, church members start getting the production ready for its debut in December, working on weekends and whenever they have free time to rehearse, gather materials and costumes and ensure the sets are in working order. Church members also prepare the free food given to spectators after they’ve experienced the show.

Overall, Phillips speculates it takes anywhere between 200 to 300 hours of work to make the annual show a reality every year.

“It’s a huge blessing to us in addition to putting it on… we get to come together and work together,” Vaughters said. “I’m proud of the program. God has blessed us with the ability to be able to present this.”

The program is not only special for the community to enjoy. It’s become a church tradition spanning generations.

Derrick Parker, who has portrayed Jesus on the cross for the past few years, began performing in the program when he was just a toddler.

“(I’ve) been in about every part from the beginning to end,” Parker said.

Children are often shepherds or angels when they begin taking part in the program. As they get older they move up in the ranks, from shepherds to soldiers to disciples and even Jesus himself.

Parker has played everything from shepherd to soldier to Jesus, and finds the experience of being lifted on the cross at Calvary Hill to be a spiritual one.

“It kind of gives you a visual of probably as close as you can get to being realistic to what really happened,” Parker said. “It makes you think.”

Most men in their 20s and 30s that are in the program share Parker’s background of growing up in the church and in the nativity.

“Those men used to be in the kid scenes. As they’ve grown, they started out in kid scenes up to about four years old then they go to shepherds and angels at four to 10 and 12 – so they all grow through it until they get old like me,” Phillips said.

Soon, it will be time for Parker to retire as Jesus on the cross and pass the torch off to a younger ‘Jesus in training’ to carry on the tradition for years to come.

“You got to keep bringing them along,” Phillips said.