Away in the manger
Local believers bring Christmas story to life
Those who drove down Empire Street at twilight over the weekend probably noticed something that didn't quite fit in among the homes and evergreen trees.
It was a stable, strewn with straw and illuminated by floodlights, containing life-size characters from the traditional Christian yuletide story. Unlike most nativity sets, however, the characters there moved.
As it has for 25 years, the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints set up a live nativity - complete with animals - to recreate what they believe is the true significance of the holiday.
"We think it is a valuable community service, and a chance to show our children what Christmas is all about," said Dave Mortensen, a longtime church leader.
The star of the show - no offense to the Christ child - is probably Mortensen's donkey, named Ears for obvious reasons.
Mortensen said his son-in-law adopted Ears (on his behalf) as a wee, three-month-old foal eight years ago, after she was born on public rangeland in Arizona. She has since shaken off any wild roots to become an integral and beloved member of the nativity troupe.
"She gets real social with the kids. She's always well-behaved," Mortensen said. "In fact, she doesn't like going home. She resists going into the trailer. It's amazing how even the animals get into the spirit a little bit."
Based on the average domesticated donkey lifespan of 35 years - up to 50 years for the resilient and well-fed - Ears could feature in many a nativity to come.
Other families from the church, mostly of ranching stock with kids in 4H, supply the shepherds' flocks. Sheep are ideal actors, Mortensen said, because they are docile and protected from the cold by thick wool coats. Mostly, they are content to munch on any grass poking through the snow.
Calves are generally avoided, he added, because they "need to be bottle-fed and don't sit still."
Camels, the presumed loyal steeds of the Eastern wise men - or magi - have yet to appear, although Mortensen said they once substituted a shaggy llama who added some Andean flair to the proceedings.
By and large, the animals cooperate.
"In 25 years we've only had one runaway - a sheep - and (the escape) didn't last long," Mortensen recalled.
As for the human actors, they come dressed to impress in ancient Middle East regalia. The more elaborate costumes were fashioned by seamstress and former church member Linda Proctor, who has since moved to Utah. Her wardrobe creations add an element of authenticity to the set. They are also nice and toasty, for Proctor sewed them with enough room to wear heavy clothing underneath.
"Before (Linda), people brought bathrobes and towels from home. We tried to raise the bar a little bit," said Colleen Honaker. "They're great and holding up okay."
Church members volunteer for 30- or 60-minute shifts, organized by ward, the LDS equivalent to a Catholic parish.
While Mortensen said having a live infant portray Jesus would not be sacrilegious - on the contrary, "it would be an honor" - cold temperatures normally preclude it.
Honaker remembered a real baby being used one year, "but it was six months old, sitting up bright and cheerful, not lying down and crying like a newborn."
With no vacancies at the Bethlehem inn, the biblical Mary and Joseph famously resorted to more rustic digs. The current LDS nativity stable is no lap of luxury, but by all accounts has set a new standard for quality.
The previous stable disappeared under mysterious circumstances about five years ago. Then-teenager Kaden Walker responded by building a new and improved version, with walls of salvaged barn wood, as part of an Eagle Scout project. It endures today.
"It should last at least 20 years," he said.
The nativity tradition has stayed alive, according to Bishop Russell Decker, because of the camaraderie it creates between members, and the spiritual resonance it brings the wider community.
"Some people slow down to watch while driving past in their cars. Other spectators will stop to take a closer look," he said. "People in town appreciate it as an opportunity to remember the real meaning of Christmas and not just the commercialization it has turned into."
Mortensen didn't recall any instances of people complaining about the display.
"We don't impose on other peoples' beliefs. This is just a demonstration of our faith. We try not to make it a controversial issue. We do it on church property so it isn't offensive to anyone."
The whole operation tends to come together without too many hiccups. Because of its longevity and because everybody pitches in, organizing the nativity has become almost second nature.
"It generally falls into place pretty easily," Mortensen said.