By Amy Chapman
When the Living Nativity is performed this Sunday afternoon at 5 p.m. on the Bethel Common, it will mark 50 years since Susan Farrar first gathered her friends and neighbors and began the much-loved tradition, celebrating Christmas and community.
Farrar passed away last June at the age of 96. Her daughter, Lisa Fox, was 12 in 1964, and she remembers the scale of the undertaking.
“My mother got the whole community involved,” she said. “It wasn’t just one particular church.”
“Jim and Mary Lou Fiske were Joseph and Mary, with one of their kids as the baby Jesus,” Fox remembered, noting that there is a tradition of keeping the identity of the Holy Family a secret until the day of the pageant.
Farrar’s sister, Emily Saunders, helped to make many of the costumes for the first Living Nativity.
Fox said people left off boxes of old curtains, tablecloths, and other fabric at Saunders’ Main Street home for her to sew into robes for the shepherds, angels, and wise men.
The Saunders home (now the business of Rick and Ellen Whitney) also served as a drop-off point for the many farm animals on loan the day of the pageant.
“Farmers brought their sheep and cows and horses into town and put them in Aunt Emily’s barn,” Fox said.
Farrar was determined to have a black sheep as part of the first pageant, and when none could be found, a white sheep was dyed to fit the part.
John K. Brown, longtime editor of the Bethel Citizen, provided details of the first Living Nativity in his “1964 News Annual Review” (reprinted by Donald G. Bennett on The Bethel Journals website, www.thebetheljournals.info).
The local Boy Scouts, under the supervision of Ernest Perkins and Stanley Davis, designed and built the manger and stable. Bethel artist Faye Taylor and her son Bruce created life-sized hand-painted figures of the Holy Family to be placed inside the stable after the pageant.
Crescent Park School students created dozens of wooden stars, which were covered with tin foil and placed on the telephone poles along roads leading into Bethel from all directions, a tradition that is being revived this year.
Fox said students in the Mahoosuc Kids after-school program and members of the Bethel Alliance Church youth group have been busy making the stars that will lead people to the stable on the Common.
According to Brown’s account of the 1964 pageant, “Those in the cast included Robert Keniston, who gave a running commentary; bell ringers were Mike Tibbetts, Mike Chretien, Lincoln Fiske, Jr., Seth Timberlake, Peter Kailey, and Steve Hastings.”
“Other participants were Margaret Fiske, Greg Glines, Carolyn Fiske, James Fiske, Lawrence Davis, Roland Glines, James Lowe, Daniel Vogt, Claire Bachelder, Merton Brown, Timothy Hutchins, James Davis, Warren Tibbetts, Allen Walker, Randy Chretien, Roger Buck, Jack Brooks, David Thurston, Larry Jacobs, Peter Burgess, Richard Waldron, William Eames, and Douglas Farrar.”
Blake McKay and Fred McMillin took charge of the lighting, with Paul Pierce responsible for special lighting effects.
Claus Weise, program director for WMTW-Channel 8, arranged for the first Living Nativity to be taped and broadcast on Christmas Eve at 5:30 p.m. and midnight.
A community event
Farrar chaired the Living Nativity throughout the 1960s and 1970s, then passed the job of directing on to longtime participant Merton Brown. Others took a turn over the years, with the duty eventually settling onto the shoulders of Bethel Alliance Church member Drew Webster.
Webster said that more of the responsibility for the Living Nativity has gradually fallen to his church, and they provide storage for the props and costumes, but the goal has always been to keep it a community event.
Each year, they reach out to the other area churches and the community at large in the weeks leading up to the event, and try to get as many people involved as possible.
The Bethel Inn provides use of its conference center as a staging area. A crew from D.A. Wilson clears snow from part of the Common.
This year’s narrator is Rev. Peter Carter of the Bethel Church of the Nazarene, and members of several church choirs participate.
“We hope to fill the gazebo with choir members,” Webster said. “And we hope that all the churches will ring their bells that evening,” as they did 10 minutes before the performance in 1964.
Ellen Whitney has been involved with the pageant for at least 30 years. In 1993, she and Rick, with their month-old son Danny, portrayed the Holy Family.
She will direct the choir for this year’s pageant, and encourages anyone who would like to sing to come to the Bethel Inn Conference Center at 3:30 on Sunday afternoon so that the group has a chance to rehearse together before the performance at 5:00.
An estimated 1,000 people viewed the first Living Nativity, which was 30 minutes long and was presented three times. In between performances, cast members were served coffee and hot chocolate by the local Girl Scouts.
This year, the Bethel Historical Society has invited the cast and audience to enjoy refreshments at the Moses Mason House following the pageant.
Bethel Alliance Church Pastor Kevin Bellinger said the dedicated crew of volunteers is usually eager to take down the props immediately after the performance.
“It’s that good old Mainer work ethic” that drives them, he said, but this year he hopes to convince them to wait, perhaps until the next morning.
“I really hope everyone will gather at the Moses Mason House for fellowship afterward, and enjoy a little of the Christmas spirit,” Bellinger said.