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Welcome to Bethlehem

Nieve Walton  |  10 November 2018

Ever wondered what it might have been like to be there at the first Christmas? An annual event tries to bring the Nativity scene to life with an immersive production involving hundreds of volunteers.

It is easy to lose sight of the origins of Christmas, to get wrapped up in the idea of buying and receiving presents or decorating your house in red and green.

However, for many families in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, it is tradition to spend an evening experiencing Bethlehem at the time of Jesus' birth.

Since it first began in 2000, Walk Through Bethlehem has attracted hundreds of thousands of people to experience a live recreation of the city of Jesus’ birth at Christmas. It began at St Mary’s Primary School in Thornbury, but in 2015 it moved to St Peter’s Primary School in Epping to accommodate the growing crowd numbers. This year’s event will take place from the 21–23 December.

Virgilio Marciano is the director and producer of the event. He first came up with the idea when he moved from Italy to Melbourne. What he found in Australia was a more commercialised Christmas, far different from the traditional celebration he was used to back home. He says he wanted his family to experience Christmas ‘beyond the fairy tales’.

This ideal has become the cornerstone of the event. Walk Through Bethlehem offers families an immersive experience that provides a glimpse at the world that Jesus was born into so many years ago.

The gates, guarded by Roman centurions, open at nightfall. Once they pass through them, visitors experience a live town, with people going about their jobs as it was in Jesus’ time.

There are spinners, weavers, blacksmiths, bakers and carpenters, as well as many shepherds tending to domestic and farm animals. The Three Kings can be seen, as well as the focal point of the production, the stable with Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. Around 300 cast members take part in the event, with ages ranging from four to 70, as well as around 100 behind-the-scenes helpers.

St Peter’s Primary School principal Kerry Miller has been able to watch the event grow over the years. Her children have been involved in almost every scene in the city. She says there are many regular participants – including some who were in primary school in the early years who are now in VCE or at university.

With so many people working towards a common goal, Miller has seen this event transform her community. It has brought together people from all walks of life. ‘People who were once strangers, become friends’, she says.

And what’s more traditionally Christmas than that?

Nieve Walton is a member of our young writers community.

Images courtesy St Peter's Primary School Epping. 


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