Most Christmas Nativity scenes include a small manger and some statuary. That’s not the case at Tapestry Church’s Bethlehem A.D. in downtown Redwood City, where visitors will encounter an interactive replica of a first-century village, with hundreds of actors playing townspeople, a choreographed troupe of dancing angels, live animals, a flashing strobe light representing the Bethlehem star — and a real baby.
A free holiday event for two decades, Bethlehem A.D., which takes place Saturday through Monday rain or shine, has grown from a small scene with a few volunteer actors and some animals into a sizable, walk-through attraction that organizers bill as the largest living nativity scene in California. Redwood City council members, police and other VIPs (including women) play the three wise men.
Last year, former San Francisco supervisor and retired San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Quentin Kopp enjoyed portraying a wise man, according to event spokeswoman Minette Siegel, who is taken by the pageant’s juxtaposition of first-century details with the 21st-century world.
“Sometimes, I’ll be taking a photo of the manger, and then I’ll see a taxi. But then, it’s not supposed to be a PBS documentary,” she says, laughing.
“San Francisco is a very ‘happy holidays,’ politically correct city,” Siegel adds, emphasizing that the spectacle reflects not just Christianity, but multiculturalism both in first-century Bethlehem and the contemporary Bay Area.
Bethlehem A.D. also always features at least one Christmas song in Spanish. Through the years, baby Jesus has been played by infants of all races; in 2013, he will be portrayed by an Asian child for the first time.
Siegel, who is Jewish, says the event “embraces the historic Jewish roots of Christmas.” So its organizers are including Israeli folk dancers and a rabbi who will teach kids about Hanukkah along with the soldiers and dancing angels.
The outdoor scene highlights Redwood City police, some on horseback, dressed as Roman centurions; a display of real Roman artifacts; working craftspeople; music and dance performances; live camels, llamas, sheep and goats; and finally, the manger, with Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.
For those in need of refreshment, cider and doughnuts are offered.
Creative director Paula Dresden says one of her bigger challenges is coordinating, and getting the best performances possible, from her crew of volunteer actors. Meanwhile, chief animal caretaker and trainer Jeff Richardson says working with the animals, especially large ones like camels, also poses special difficulties.
“Animals are like people, they all have different personalities,” Richardson says. Even so, most of the animals are used to being around people and adjust well to their roles. “They get kind of peaceful even with the chaos going on around them.”
A tradition in Redwood City, Bethlehem A.D. draws visitors and participants year after year. Siegel says, “The very first baby Jesus is 19 now, and he still comes back.”
IF YOU GO
Where: 1300 Middlefield Road (at Cassia Street), Redwood City
When: 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday through Monday