Tradition considered a gift to the community
BAR HARBOR—It is a Monday night in Bar Harbor, off season, and though it is only 6 p.m., the streets are mostly dark with only an occasional car rumbling by or lone person hurrying down the concrete sidewalk of Mount Desert Street, hat pulled over their ears, wind billowing against their parka. But the Bar Harbor Congregational Church’s white façade is lit up, and about twenty people congregate in the darkness on the sidewalk, waiting.
Moments later, the wind picks up and through a loudspeaker, the sounds of a Christmas hymn moves through the night air and softly dissipates. The church’s front door opens and onto the church’s front steps local performers silently move, one after another, taking their places around a manger and down the wide front stairs, robes billowing behind them with each gust of wind.
Another carol plays.
And another as the church and volunteers present a living nativity scene postponed from last Friday because of weather.
Sometimes voices gently join in, soft against the movement of notes and wind.
“It’s always been understood and presented as a gift to the community,” Reverend Rob Benson said of the annual living nativity scene outside the church.
A December 16, 1973 issue of the Bangor Daily News includes a news brief which reads, “To honor the Christmas season and help put Christ back into the meaning of Christmas, a living nativity will be displayed by the Bar Harbor Congregational Church in their churchyard.” The clip also echoes Benson’s message of the event being a gift to the community.
Bob Chaplin was a member of the first nativity 49 years ago.
“I started out this year’s celebration,” he said. His daughter, Susannah, was a toddler back then. “My daughter, Susannah Chaplin Isaacs, participated this year.”
Isaacs and Chaplin were wise-people.
“I haven’t been to all fifty, but I’ve been to several,” Chaplin said. “I had the honor of being in the first. Traditions like this are really important to a community.”
St. Francis of Assisi holds the honor of creating the first recorded living nativity scene in a cave close to Greccio, Italy in 1223. He is said to have been inspired by a trip to Israel and also because he wanted to increase people’s worship of Jesus. His event included several live animals. Typically, the scene has a crib, baby Jesus, Mary (his mother), Joseph (her husband) and sometimes donkeys, oxen, camels, Magi, angels and shepherds. Year-round nativity scenes became popular outside of Italian churches in the 1300s, and expanded to the exterior of wealthy people’s homes in the mid-1500s.
Sometimes the scene moves up and down a street as performers portraying Mary and Joseph look for shelter and are turned away at one door after another, a sequence which imitates the Biblical story. The nativity scene at the Bar Harbor Congregational Church stays on the church’s property.
“It’s fun and meaningful for folks in the congregation and has often included people from other churches as well. We have two full sets of vintage costumes assembled over many years,” Benson said and added that Norma Spurling is the costume expert.
Richard Reccholtz and his granddaughter Ava also both participated this year.
“For me it’s a time to pause in the midst of an extremely busy and stressful season and just take it all in,” Benson said.
The church’s Christmas Eve services will be at 4 and 7 p.m. both in person and via zoom and are open to all. The link is on the church’s website. BarharborUCC.org
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