Johnson City's traditional Living Nativity Christmas pageant is nearing its 50th birthday.
It began 40-something years ago as a "tableau vivant", with costumed actors posing in fixed positions, representing the characters in the blended Nativity stories from the Gospels.
The performers would set up in the space between the First United Methodist Church sanctuary and parsonage. Posing became tiring after a while, of course, and the actors would sit, or lounge, or drink chocolate... until the lookout alerted them that a car was coming down LBJ, and all the characters would jump back into position.
Over the years, the production grew to the light-and-sound show it is today, with a full sized set, costumed characters acting out their parts, animals, and a music track.
This year, shows will begin every half hour, beginning at 6:30pm, Friday and Saturday, December 5, 6, 12 and 13. Parking and seating is on the North Avenue E side of the First United Methodist Church, between US 290 and Pecan Street.
It also has grown from something for local residents to look at to a statewide attraction, along with the rest of Lights Spectacular. Phone calls to the church begin early in the season, asking which weekends the show will go on. Families as far away as Houston and Dallas have made it a part of their Christmas traditions, and busloads of tourists from all over the state include it in their tours of the Hill Country lights.
The work on the pageant also begins early in the year, painting and maintaining the scenery, checking the lights, and lining up all the out-front performers and behind-the-scenes crew needed to put on the show... dozens of church members over the four nights of performances.
The supporting workers include kitchen volunteers who provide free hot coffee and chocolate, cookies and cake for the visitors between shows.
Also inside the church Activity Building is a display of more than 100 nativity sets of all styles and from all around the world.
From the seamstresses who adjust the costumes to the traffic director who helps with parking, there are as many behind the scenes as out in front.
One of the most unusual job titles is "baby wrangler". The director almost always is able to find a couple with a baby to play the Holy Family, but of course Mary can't bring the child to the stable with her. "Baby Jesus" is kept in the arms of the baby wrangler behind the stable, and when the lights go dark for a moment, a door in the back opens and the Holy Infant is delivered through it before the lights go back up again.
As one recent "Mary" said, if all deliveries were that easy, she'd have had more children!
The animal wranglers have different kinds of issues. Live animals include calves, sheep and goats, usually a donkey or two, and sometimes a llama playing the role of a camel. And, of course, the animals can have ideas of their own about the strange people and lights and noise, requiring quick action to keep the story on track.
Not only do the animals add realism, though, they are an attraction in themselves. Between shows the children are invited to pet and perhaps feed the animals... a treat for the city kids who seldom get up close and personal with such critters.
Most of the performers are old hands with the show... a few are even veterans of those early years. The show has seen second and even third generations of performers. Others, of course, are newcomers, just learning their steps, and there always are youngsters preparing to become the church's shepherds and wise men of tomorrow.
For more information about the Living Nativity pageant, call the church office at 830-868-7414.