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The Spirit of Christmas Comes Alive — Literally

The donkeys were there. The angels were there. So were the shepherds and the wise men. Even Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus were there.

They came to celebrate Aldersgate's yearly Living Nativity, a program that is presented on Aldersgate's lawn every December.

The idea for the project came about 10 years ago when Dru and Robert Vander-Linden started talking about a living nativity with Bob McAdan, the former senior minister.

"Sounds like a good idea, let's do it."

And with that, Robert Vander-Linden started building the stage which serves as the stable for Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus.

The stage has stood the test of time and Vander-Linden just replaced it for the first time this year.

"It's very versatile, we use the same set for the Easter tomb," said Vander-Linden. Although the show has been presented in rain, snow and sleet, Vander-Linden said, "It [the stage] has never blown down and we never had to cancel a show."

Dru and Robert Vander-Linden continue to work the technical side and this was the first year that Robert had a booth from which to do the lighting, sound and narration. Prior to that, he worked under a tent with the tent blowing around him.

Eight years ago, Dixie Rettig, director of the Single Adult Ministry, assumed the role of coordinating the actors, costumes and staging. The Ministry does the nativity as an outreach program and Rettig said that hundreds of people come every year. The addition of hot cider and cookies after the performance was a big hit.

"We just make sure it happens," she said.

Vander-Linden said that the response has been great. "The living nativity has become a fixture and that people look forward to it," he said.

THE LIVING NATIVITY is a re-enactment of the birth of Jesus Christ, staged with real people, including real babies.

"In September I scout for pregnant women," said Rettig, who has always been able to find the six women and babies needed for the show.

"They're always very happy to do it," said Rettig, "And I've seen children who once played the part of Baby Jesus return to play the part of a shepherd or an angel when they are older."

The animals are real as well. Every year, the Leesburg Petting Zoo (formerly the Reston Petting Zoo) brings sheep, donkeys, goats and a cow. To help offset the costs, parishioners "buy" a goat or a sheep for a night. They haven't had too many problems with the animals, although the camel, which they had for the first time this year, was a little skittish.

"The camel was a baby, he was only two years old and he was tired," said Vander-Linden.

Officials got a little nervous on Sunday when the animals hadn't arrived in time for the performance. The animals came just when the show was about to start and they hurried to get them in place. In between performances, children are able to pet the animals.

During each of the three nights the nativity is presented, two shifts of people dressed up as Mary, Joseph, wise men, angels and shepherds are used. The total number of people involved as characters is about 70 people. Other people help behind the scenes.

"This gives that many more people a chance to participate," said Rettig.

Angels are under the domain of head angel, Kat Pace. She runs a day care center in her home and does child care during Sunday services.

"All the kids know her," said Rettig.

Pace takes her job serious and said that she always tries to position the children so that their parents can take pictures of them. Invariably, they wave to their parents when they come out. Pace doesn't interfere unless they start stepping out into the audience or playing with the animals.

"They're just doing what baby angels would do," she said. "We're not out there very long, but we're a vital part of the show. She said that Jack Prater, a two-year-old, "really stole the show Monday night." Although some develop stage fright at the last minute and don't appear, Pace said, "I do my best to get the little people out there to be seen."

FOR THE NATIVITY, there are no speaking parts and there's no rehearsal or fitting.

The lack of fitting can present a small problem, but one that Rettig is well equipped to handle.

"Sunday night, we had a Mary who was six feet; the next one was 5" 1'. Rettig knows the costumes so well that she knew which ones will suit each of the women playing Mary. One time, one of the wise men didn't show up. "I saw a tall woman walking down the hall and we ended up with a wise woman."

"I'm there every night to help wherever I'm needed," she said. In fact, Rettig is so busy helping out that she's never seen the whole performance.

"I'm so busy backstage that I've never seen it," said Rettig.

Having Pace out there with the angels helps to keep things running smoothly and Pace said that she's never tripped, although this year was the first time she stepped on her angel costume.

"It's been fun. It doesn't feel like Christmas until we do the show," she said.