For this strangest of Christmases – a Nativity trail in Tier-3
By Susan Miller (December 2020)
For this strangest of Christmases, I headed (virtually) to Christ Church Downend, Bristol and heard about the special Nativity trail the church is producing, despite being in Tier-3. Here is one church that is thinking out of the box to make sure Christmas happens.
I spoke to Anita Dobson, Head of Discipleship about their Christmas plans, including the trail, which they are hoping will be able to go ahead whatever Coronavirus restrictions are in place over Christmas.
So what will be new this year?
“We can’t have our normal children’s crib service on Christmas Eve with everybody crowded in, so we’re doing a Christmas trail around our suburb with the help of our local shops. We will be putting the Nativity figures, 3D models of Mary and Joseph and the angels and so on, into five different shop windows. Families will get a map and go and visit each shop window in turn.”
Will it be interactive?
“There’ll be a QR code in each window that you can scan on your phone.
“We are confident it will work because so many people have got the QR app, because of Test and Trace, and enough people know how to do that now. And we will send out the instructions about how families can take part.
“The code will take you to a little video, which will be telling a part of the Christmas story. We’re getting local children to record parts of the story and sing carols. The final shop window will point them to the church, where they’ll be able to go inside and see our large wooden stable – made for us by locals doing a woodworking project – and all the Nativity figures gathered around the crib: the shepherds and the angels, the Wise Men, and Mary, Joseph and Jesus. The church will be decorated as normal with a big Christmas tree and Christmas decorations.”
So each group will be going on a journey too?
“Yes, and on the way they’ll also get to pick up little pieces of a jigsaw, one in each shop, and when they put them all together it’ll make a little picture of the Nativity with a message.”
It sounds lovely. When do you plan to run it?
“It’ll run from the Monday before Christmas to Christmas Eve. They can do the trail at any time but the church will be open from 10.00 am till 2.00 pm each day for people to visit the Nativity scene. We’ll make sure there are people in the church to welcome visitors and make sure the numbers are controlled and there are hand sanitizers out, etc.”
How did you involve the shops?
“I looked for shops with big windows or where I knew the people and went in and asked if they’d be interested, and they all were very keen. Life has been difficult for most of them, and so it’s good for us to have something that will encourage people into our local shops. We have five shops: a health food store, an estate agent, a furniture shop, an optician and a fabric shop.”
What will the scenes show?
“The first scene will be Mary and the angel, and then Mary and Joseph on the way to Bethlehem and then them with the innkeeper, and so on until the final full Nativity scene in the church.”
How are the figures being made?
“We are using a cone of card stapled together and polystyrene balls for the head, and then cloths and fabric that people can sew or glue or whatever. People will be able to do this at home.
“They will be about 60 cm tall but not particularly wide, so tall and thin. I’m hoping that they can all fit in the windows.”
So will Joseph and Mary change appearance in the different windows?
“Ha ha! We realised we needed to ask one person to make all the Marys and one person to make all the Josephs so that they look the same. It didn’t occur to me but someone said to me, ‘Ooh, hang on, it might be a bit confusing…’
“We are going to ask one person who is very artistic to paint all the faces. “
How long is the trail?
“It’s the five shops ending at the church. They are all in a little suburban shopping centre, so if people walk to the church when they’ve finished at the shops, it will probably be about a half-a-mile walk. We wanted people to have a decent chunk of the story in each window, but we wouldn’t spread it out any further than that.”
So what else needs to be done?
“We have to get the videos made. I’ve been asking families to invite children to sing or read a story and we will either record them at home or, if we’re allowed, we’ll get them together and record them after a service.
“We’ve also got the schools involved by asking them to paint pictures, which will feature in the videos. So, while a child is telling a part of the story, we’ll have a few pictures of Mary, Joseph and the donkey flicking through as well.
“So all of those different elements will have to be put together. It’s quite a lot of organising but then our normal crib service takes a lot of work too…”
Who will help you?
“We have a good number of families and young people. I’m asking some of the children and teens to do the stories and carols. And we have a craft group and others who we know will be happy to make the figures.
“I’ll be delivering the card and instructions to people.
“And then we have techie people who can put the videos together, and help us promote it on social media.”
Will this happen whatever Covid-19 restrictions are in place?
“It’s meant to be an almost foolproof programme so that we won’t have to cancel.
“As far as we understand, churches and shops will definitely remain open, so we should be ok even though we are currently in Tier 3 here in Bristol.”
How will you cope with people arriving at the church at the end of the trail?
“People will welcome them and ask families to wait if necessary. When one family is finished the next one can come forward.”
How many people do you think will take part?
“We have no idea… But I ran a local scarecrow trail recently and we had at least 1,000 people, so you never know.
“It will depend on how well it’s publicised and how many people catch onto the idea. Involving the schools will also bring more families out to have a look.”
And what services are you organising?
“We were thinking that people will be looking forward to things that might cheer them up over Christmas, because they might not be able to go be with their extended families, so we wanted to give them something to do with their immediate families and friends.
“So we are going to have a mix of traditional and new activities. We’ll have our usual carols by candlelight service but this year there will be two, in order to fit in as many people as possible. Even so, we’ll only get a small proportion of people in and so we’ll live-stream the second service in the evening, so people can watch at home. People will need to book in advance to come to church and we will need to make sure all the seats are all spread out. Instead of having a large choir we’ll just have a quartet singing.
“But we’ll still have candles and traditional carols and we’ll try and make it feel as familiar as possible. We have also just found out that we are allowed to carol sing together outside. People have really missed singing together, so after our second carol service we’ll be inviting people to go out to the churchyard and sing carols together.
“Also, one of our family services, which we started having on Sunday afternoons once we could reopen for worship. It’s about half an hour alternately on Zoom or live; obviously at the moment it’s on Zoom. We’ll invite everybody to come in Nativity costume or Christmas onesies or whatever for a Christmas service on 13 December. When the services are live in the church, each family sits around a separate table and we spread the tables out. We can fit 17 families in.
“And we’ll have our Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in as traditional a way as possible. And, of course, a Christmas morning service as well.”
Will people need to book in for the Christmas services?
“Yes, we are using Eventbrite, and those not online can ring to book. When we put it on social media we’ll give people the instructions and links to book in.
“Our carol service is very, very popular, so it could be a bit of a squeeze to try and keep up with online bookings and phone calls but we don’t want anyone to miss out…”
How many people fit into the church under the new socially distanced rules?
“We have chairs, so it’s easy to spread them out. I think we have a maximum of about 70 places, with possibly a little bit more room up in the balcony.”
What Covid-19 measures will you take in the church?
“There’ll be hand sanitizer as usual and the QR codes for people to sign in, and paper forms as well. We’ll rope off a kind of gateway, so everybody passes along the same route, and we will also have the doors open to keep it airy and well ventilated. We already do that for our services, so we’re well practised.”
Has this Christmas been hard to organise?
“The trail is probably a bit more effort than running a crib service because we are used to doing that. But on the other hand, it will be a lot less work on Christmas Eve. We normally do our crib service at 4.00 pm and have musicians and a tech team, and welcomers and all the people involved in the service. On this Christmas Eve we’ll just need a couple of people welcoming.
“We hope the trail will involve people, be fun to do and also bring the Christmas story to the community.”