VERMILION — What does it take to tell a story that is 2,000 years old?
Sixty volunteer actors, a wardrobe of period costumes, a choir, an angel on a scaffold, a miniature palace, a tyrannical king, a re-created ancient village, a trio of wise men, a virgin mother and a few donkeys and sheep.
But for the crew behind the annual “Breath of Heaven” live Nativity, it’s worth every second.
This year is the 20th year for the event — and the first year at its new home at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Vermilion. Until now it has been at Grace Lutheran Church in Oberlin, but church leaders decided against continuing it there, said church member and organizer Kathy Sklarek.
If you go
"Breath of Heaven" is open 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at St. Matthew Lutheran Church. The event is free and refreshments are available after the tour. Visitors get a free handmade Christmas ornament.
Volunteers from several area churches, including Trinity Lutheran and St. Matthew Lutheran in Vermilion and Kipton Community Church, staff the event, which Sklarek describes as a “walk-through of Bethlehem.”
“We’ve got wonderful, wonderful people involved,” she said.
Putting the production on requires a lot of work and doesn’t always go smoothly. This week, many of the sets built at St. Matthew were damaged by high winds, and Sklarek and others were scrambling to prepare for the big weekend.
“Right now, I’m down a king, but I got the sheep and the donkeys, so that’s cool,” she said, laughing. “We used to have a camel, but it got too old to hop onto a trailer. We tried having a cow one time, but it got rambunctious and tried to break out of the gate. Bethlehem shut down because the cow got nuts. I’m not kidding, it was terrible.”
Visitors begin at the gates of the ancient city and are led from station to station by a shepherd. Highlights of the biblical story of the birth of Jesus Christ are parts of the 15-minute tour, including the palace of King Herod, the inn without a vacancy and the streets of Bethlehem, leading to a lowly manger in a stable and the newborn king.
Firelands High School Select Choir performs as the heavenly host, surrounded by murals depicting the heavens. Costumed performers portray the townspeople of Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph and the three kings who bring gifts to the Christ child.
But the only role not filled by a performer? The baby Jesus.
“When I was a kid, we never had a baby in the manger because nobody could possibly replace baby Jesus. So we never had a baby in the manger (in the production),” Sklarek said.
That changed about 15 years ago when a visiting family was so moved by the living Nativity that they made a weighty decision.
Three little girls attended “Breath of Heaven” and couldn’t wait to see the tiny Jesus.
When they discovered there was no baby in the makeshift manger, they approached Sklarek.
“There were these three little girls and their mother. She said ‘My girls want you to have their baby for your ‘Breath of Heaven’’ and handed me their baby doll,” Sklarek said. “Of course I started crying, the mother is crying.”
They still attend every year, she said. “Breath of Heaven” is put on only one weekend a year; the donated baby that plays Jesus spends the rest of the year in an old crib at Sklarek’s house.
The Rev. Dale Huelsman, pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church in Wellington, has been part of it nearly every year. He’s a “talking shepherd” who serves as a tour guide of sorts, leading visitors through Bethlehem. Non-talking shepherds are usually spotted near the manger, kneeling near the manger or keeping an eye on the flocks.
“It’s a tremendous thing; people enjoy it so much and bring their children and grandchildren,” Huelsman said. “It’s been a great time. It is an excellent way to get people in touch with the good news of mankind’s savior Jesus Christ and his birth.”
Contact Rini Jeffers at 329-7155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.