Through all the pomp and circumstance of the holiday season—the lavish light displays, evergreens bedecked with babbles, parades of floats and marching bands, festive parties and endless stream of presents—it’s often remarked that the real reason for the Christmas season is missing. On the Eastern Shore, thirty miles south of Ocean City, MD just off route 13 in Pocomoke, MD the “reason” is truly alive and on extraordinary display at Lynnhaven Baptist Church.

The church’s A Walk Through Bethlehem is a realistic depiction of the town of Bethlehem, and much like the name suggests, visitors walk-through the experience, actually becoming part of the elaborate play, as members of a group returning to the Biblical town for the Census. Bethlehem was under the rule of King Herod, who was loyal to the occupying Romans. Lynnhaven’s depiction includes Roman soldiers in full uniform and even a horse and chariot.

“Living Nativities” as these performances are often called began in 1223 in Greccio, Italy, credited to St. Francis of Assisi. In fact, the manger scenes that decorate home mantles during the holiday season, and adorn church lawns actually began this way, with live people and animals depicting the scenes of Jesus’ birth. It was years later that the living participants were replaced with the statues so common today.

In Italy, Sicily in particular, these displays are a focal part of the season and are known as presepe vivente, or a “crèche (another term referring to the nativity), come to life.“ These live performances include the townspeople playing the traditional roles, and often take to the streets reenacting the scenes from over 2,000 years ago.

Much more of an anomaly in the United States, the craftsmanship and enormous effort it takes to put on A Walk Through Bethlehem at Lynnhaven Baptist Church, makes the experience truly unique and certainly worth the drive from any point on the shore. Local carpenters build an entire village scene on the church’s lawn. Wooden fences that must be twenty feet high close in the whole production. Stepping out the back doors of Lynnhaven and into “Bethlehem,” only the stars and moon above are visible—gone are any signs of the twenty-first century. It’s such a realistic depiction, it’s easy to get caught up in the experience and forget you are just a stones throw away from major highways. .

Once through the gates, eyes are immediately drawn towards a Roman soldier, silently watching over the crowd assembled before him. A woman is asked to guide this group of people of varying ages onto Bethlehem for the Census. Prior to moving forward, all must pass on their Census tickets.

Before entering the town of Bethlehem, closed off and patrolled by a Roman soldier on horse and chariot, all members of the group must pay their “tax” in the form of a coin provided previously—back in the modern world, by church volunteers. Once inside, scenes of an over 2,000-year-old town are everywhere. Volunteer actors call out from their shops—there’s a working fishmonger with the day’s fresh catch displayed, a baker passing out unleavened bread, a tanner, a person selling fruits and vegetables, another with chickens—real chickens still clucking in a wooden cage; a working blacksmith making horseshoes, a potter and brass maker. The village is lit only by fire and torchlight. Palm trees provide authentic foliage to the middle-eastern scene. The floor is dirt and worked up with feet as well as hoof prints.

Coming upon the town’s only inn, the group is informed there are no rooms available after their long travels. The tour ends by the manger, but not before the shepherds reveal what the angel had told them—an angel who hovers above, seeming to float in the sky. And then, the star of the evening, the reason for the season, is revealed lying in the manger.

Lynnhaven Baptist Church has created an authentic depiction of the town of Bethlehem, and all who may have once lived there. The experience is provided free of charge as an outreach service to the local community, and for those who travel far and wide to see this realistic portrayal recreating the night Jesus was born.

Lynnhaven Baptist’s “A Walk Through Bethlehem” continues December 14th, 15th, and 16th from 6:00 to 9:00 pm in Pocomoke, MD.

Some tips if you go:

  • Be prepared for the weather and dress warmly. The outdoor event is authentic and isn’t heated.
  • If you have young children, go early. The walk takes approximately a half hour; wait time to get into “Bethlehem” increases the time you will spend.
  • Visitors wait inside the church and live entertainment is provided, but be prepared for what can be a lengthy wait, depending on what time you arrive.