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A living Nativity scene in Alaska, at 6 degrees

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published December 24, 2016

Members of the Christian Church of Anchorage wave to passing cars as they take part in a living Nativity at the church in South Anchorage on Friday. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

On the night before Christmas Eve, at the Christian Church of Anchorage, the Virgin Mary sat texting on her iPhone behind a manger holding a plastic baby Jesus.

It was 6 degrees around 6:30 p.m., which the Rev. Deryl Titus said was "a bit brisk," but nothing the Nativity scene actors couldn't handle with the help of hand-warmers and hot coffee. In past years, the characters have endured temperatures as low as minus 10.

About a dozen members of the congregation dressed in robes — atop layers and long underwear — stood around a small, three-sided wooden stable at the corner of Lake Otis Parkway and O'Malley Road, waving and gesturing to cars driving past to honk.

Since Wednesday, they've been celebrating Christmas with the traditional Christian reenactment of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The final re-enactment was Saturday afternoon.

Sunnee Peters, Ricky Elliott, Keona Taylor, Mimi Peters and Leslie Carretero of the Christian Church of Anchorage gather around the baby Jesus in a living Nativity scene at the church. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

A traditional Nativity scene features Mary, Joseph, three wise men, shepherds, angels and animals gathered in and around a stable, centered around baby Jesus in a manger. The first Nativity scene reportedly dates back to 1223, when St. Francis of Assisi staged one in an Italian town.

You can find Nativity scenes on lawns of homes and churches during the Christmas season, and smaller figurine versions inside on tabletops. Living Nativity scenes, especially in Alaska, are more rare.

At this Nativity, wise men and shepherds — played by kids and adults, men and women — shouted playfully and gesticulated at passing cars to get them to honk.

Members of the Christian Church of Anchorage wave to passing cars as they take part in a living Nativity at the church on the corner of Lake Otis Parkway and O’Malley Road. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

By 7 p.m. Friday, the honk count stood at 50. In the church basement, on a dry erase board, they keep track of which night garners the most: Wednesday had 76 honks, but Thursday reportedly saw an impressive 241.

"It's an effort," Titus, the church pastor, said. "But it helps people think beyond just going to work, and making money and spending money."

Tracy Peters has been attending the South Anchorage church for 14 years, and said the living Nativity scene has come to be expected.

"I think the neighborhood looks forward to it," she said. "People know it."

The church used to put up a sign near the Nativity that said "please honk," Peters said, but they've done away with that.

"We didn't want to offend people," she said, "like, 'honk for Jesus.'"

Families and friends donned their costumes and got ready in the basement of the church, which had a cabinet full of drapey fabrics, kids' costumes and gold tinsel halos spread out on the tables, along with a decorated Christmas tree under fluorescent lights.

Tiphanie Huckstep sat on one side of the room — near a counter full of cupcakes and cookies and cider — putting on a purple full-body sleeping bag complete with built-in booties and gloves, in preparation for her shift in the cold. She was there with her husband and daughter.

"I think it's kind of like Christmas lights," Huckstep said of why she participates in the Nativity. "You put them up at your house, you go home and feel good, and you go see others people's. It brings happiness and light in a dark time of the season."

An angel and a wise man came down the basement stairs to get warmed up before heading back outside to the stable.

Brady Francis, a 15-year-old dressed in a white robe affixed with angels' wings, said he doesn't go to Christian Church of Anchorage. But he was there with his friend, 15-year-old wise man Daniel Renteria, who wore a purple and gold crown and long purple robe.

Members of the Christian Church of Anchorage take part in a living Nativity scene. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

This Nativity is informal. People talked and joked on the corner as kids ran around. There are no strict rules about what to wear, or who has to play each role.

The stable was built by a churchgoer, Titus said, completed about a month ago. It will stay up until January.

The groups do 30-minute shifts to make sure no one gets too cold. In one group, church secretary Mandy Thomas sat behind the manger, playing the part of Mary.

"It's just a way to show our community the meaning of Christmas," she said.

But then a kid who had previously declared herself to be one of the wise men came into the stable and declared, "I'm Mary now."

"OK," Thomas said, "I guess I'm Joseph."

As far as Titus knows, the Nativity scene at Christian Church of Anchorage is one of the few, or perhaps the only, in town that features real people. That doesn't go unnoticed.

"We've had people as far as Kotzebue saying, 'Oh yeah, I've seen that.'"

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