My first introduction to Santa Clara First Baptist Church’s “Bethlehem” was the remarkable sight of a camel grazing on Benton Street. That was 18 years ago, but the annual Christmas event remains as fresh and charming as it was years ago when I met the grazing camel.
Started by Santa Clara native Jerry Cintas, Bethlehem has been an annual event since 1998; even during COVID when it was a drive-through show. The live show returns this year on Dec. 8 and runs through Dec. 11.
Cintas got the idea for Bethlehem from an interactive Christmas show he saw in Salinas.
“First Baptist had put on Christmas shows but they only brought a few hundred people,” he said. “After I saw the Salinas show, we decided to do something like that outside. That first year we had 2,900 people.”
The most people the show ever drew was over 19,000 in 2018.
“People loved what they were experiencing,” he said. “Kids who came when they were younger are adults now bringing their own kids. People who are involved in putting on the show when they were young continue to be involved as adults.
“We don’t change it much because of the nostalgia people have for it,” continued Cintas.
It’s a “Nativity immersion” that lets visitors get a taste of the first-century world into which Jesus was born. For the event, the church’s parking lot is transformed into a first-century village square complete with crowds, craftspeople, vendors, Roman centurions, and beggars. You can smell frankincense and myrrh and watch an ancient blacksmith at work.
The heart of the program is a dramatization of the Christmas Story from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, accompanied by music, some of which is written and performed by Cintas and his family, who are all musical.
Joseph and his wife Mary, who is expecting a baby, travel to Bethlehem to be registered for a census called by the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. They arrive on a donkey looking for a place to stay. Finding “no room at the inn,” they take refuge in a stable, where Jesus is born. His birth is celebrated with visits from angels, shepherds and Wise Men from the Orient (on camels) who are led by a bright, new star to Bethlehem.
The production is a formidable effort, with 160 volunteers and covering 40,000 sq. ft. of First Baptist’s campus. Cintas is the show’s producer, director, volunteer coordinator and music arranger. He is also the production’s tech director.
“Synchronizing behind the scenes is a challenge, that’s why we have automated control of the audio and video,” he said. “We run the show five times every night, but we only have three tech people to run this entire production. Everything runs in a repeatable way.”
Four-legged actors play important roles in Bethlehem. This year the animals — sheep, goats, a donkey and a Zebu cow — come from a farm in Gilroy, owned by a young man who grew up in Santa Clara and loved the program as a child. The camel comes from an exotic animal company in Santa Maria.
Sometimes the animals put on their own show, as was the case in 2002 when some goats got loose during the night and visited Santa Clara High School across the street. “We called the animal handler, but by the time we got there, the goats [were] in the classrooms,” Cintas recalled. “The kids loved it but not the school administrators.”
The Christmas pageant — “creche” — was popularized by Saint Francis of Assisi 800 years ago. And like Francis’ pageant, Bethlehem’s purpose isn’t merely to entertain. It is also to make tangible Christianity’s elemental principle: The divine is found in humility and love, not in the pomp and power of the Caesars of this world.
Bethlehem on Benton Street runs Dec. 8 through 11, from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Santa Clara First Baptist Church, 3111 Benton Street. Parking is available at Santa Clara High School across the street. For more information visit the Santa Clara First Baptist Church website or call (408) 241-7635.