For almost 50 years now, the Living Nativity Christmas pageant has been a part of the season for tens of thousands of people, and this year will continue the tradition with two weekends of free performances at the First United Methodist Church in Johnson City.
Final costume fittings and practices are happening this week, working toward opening night on Friday.
"Like always, we're plugging gaps and patching holes at the last minute," said show director Dale Hardy.
"We could use a couple of wise men and shepherds, but we really need a Baby Jesus for the second weekend. He or she can bring Mom and Dad, too, and be the whole Holy Family. A baby just isn't something we can produce at the last minute, so we do what we have to do to accommodate them."
This year, Paul and Kris Axtell and little Michael will reprise their roles of last year as Joseph, Mary and Jesus the first weekend, although now it takes more imagination to see Michael as a newborn.
Casting is still open for the second weekend.
Happily for the stage-shy, none of the roles require memorizing a script -- there are no speaking parts.
That has never stopped the animals from injecting their comments on the show, though, sometimes gently in the background and sometimes overwhelming the narrator and music.
"Anyone in show business will tell you that doing a live show outdoors with children and animals is a time for prayer, because that's the only control you have over what some of them are going to do," Hardy added.
So the outcome -- a mixture of 2,000-year-old tradition and modern who-knows-what -- continues to draw people from all over the state, some on buses discovering it as they tour the Hill Country Trail of Lights, and others coming back year after year as part of their own holiday tradition.
"It's not fancy. It's all obviously a work of love by local people," said Pastor Sid Spiller, "and that's part of its charm. No slick production with live camels and casts of thousands...just small-town faith in action, a gift from us to our neighbors and guests, the way it used to be."
Free performances are Friday and Saturday nights, December 5, 6, 12 and 13, starting every half hour from 6:30 to 8:30, outside the Activity Building on North Avenue E between US 290 and Pecan. Bleacher seating is provided.
Between performances, guests are invited to have refreshments inside the Activity Building, and to tour the display of more than 100 nativity sets loaned by church members from their personal collections.
For more information, contact the church office at 868-7414.