by Nathan Warner
Angels, shepherds, townspeople and Roman soldiers stepped out of the Christmas story and into Zimmerman over the weekend for the “O Holy Night” live nativity at St. John Lutheran Church. An estimated 500 people visited the production between Saturday and Sunday.
On Saturday, mild weather framed the event with mixtures of drizzle and snow gently falling overhead, creating a warm halo that caught the light perfectly. Worries that people would be dissuaded by the weather faded fast for Barry Bluhm, church music and worship team head for St. John, who directed and orchestrated the event.
“Saturday night, I was really concerned with the weather,” he said, “but it turned out nicely and Sunday we had twice as many people show up.” Planning began as far back as the spring of this year with construction starting in November.
“It was an amazing process that got us to this night,” said Mark Bost, who played King Herod. “We had incredible volunteers work on the costumes, the painting and construction, as well as playing all the characters.”
Holding cups of free apple cider, coffee and hot chocolate, visitors started up the hill from the parking lot to where the first scene unfolded, showing Mary’s visitation by the angel Gabriel. “Mary” was dressed in traditional blue and white fabric, but her Minnesota snow boots were quite original. Illuminated signs shared the relevant passage of Scripture for each scene. Not far away, three men debated near chests of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These turban-wearing wise men stood in their tower planning their trip to follow the star they had seen in the sky. Following in their footsteps, visitors arrived at the entrance to “Bethlehem,” where Roman soldiers waited to inspect newcomers to the city.
With strategically placed lights and cleverly constructed sets, Bluhm’s production brought the courtyards of “Bethlehem” to life with townspeople busily selling their wares, drawing water from the well, and requesting “10 shekels” from visitors to help them pay their taxes to the Roman emperor. Some of the townspeople stopped visitors and asked, “Have you heard? A child has been born this night!” Townswomen offered visitors flatbread from baskets and served up hot lentil soup, while Roman soldiers passed by on patrol questioning “suspicious” people.
Passing out of Bethlehem into the countryside, visitors came upon shepherds tending their sheep in a pen and warming themselves around a fire. In the distance, a group of “angels” waited in the shadows for their cue to break out into song. While they waited, a loud audio track of sheep assured visitors there were large flocks in the dark nearby. The wait proved too much for one of the younger “angels” who left the company and had to run back when the music suddenly sounded and the lights came on. Together, they proclaimed the birth of Christ, singing, “Glory to God in the highest! And on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!”
As visitors moved on, it was easy to imagine they were walking with the shepherds when they came around a bend to the manger scene. On a bed of straw, Mary and Joseph fondly kept watch over the baby Jesus, bathed in warm lights from above.
Just beyond the manger scene, King Herod, sporting glasses, stood brooding beside a fire, plotting to kill all the children in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill Jesus. While the poster tells us he killed all the children of Bethlehem, Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus escaped to Egypt. Here the story and the production ended. Visitors seemed impressed by the event and many of the volunteers were equally surprised at how it turned out.
“We started over a month ago,” Bost laughs, adjusting Herod’s crown, “and I honestly didn’t think all the work we were doing would turn out this good, but once it got dark, it really came alive and looked really good.”
This is largely thanks to the skill and vision of Bluhm, who has an extensive background in entertainment and is the owner of Midwest Sound and Stage, while also the managing director of Central Minnesota Production Group, stage division. “It was a huge undertaking for a church of St. John’s size,” Bluhm said, “but it came together perfectly and our volunteers were outstanding.”
He says he was pleasantly surprised by the turnout and extremely happy with the response, adding that many visitors could not believe it was the first time for the production. “They said they looked forward to it becoming a tradition,” he said, “and I agree.”
Bluhm hopes to continue the story to the cross with a production next year around Easter.