Cooperative News

Little town of Bethlehem, remade in downtown Burnet

How 'one little church' transforms downtown into an ancient city each December

“People, gather around and hear me, for I have witnessed a miracle!”

The voice rings out through the hubbub of the cramped city streets. Visitors look up from the camels and the blacksmith’s shop as a man in ancient garb strides through the crowd, waving a shepherd’s crook.

“A messiah has come!” the shepherd calls, as a gruff Roman soldier descends to drag him away by the arm. “Go and see for yourself!”

Go and see for yourself is a guiding principle of Main Street Bethlehem, a full-scale recreation of the ancient city of Bethlehem by the First Baptist Church in downtown Burnet. The production transforms the biblical Christmas story into a truly immersive event, drawing on the work of more than 250 cast and crew members to plunge guests into the sights, sounds and smells of a bustling city in the midst of the Roman census.

“People are amazed by how authentic it is,” PEC employee Janet Christiansen, who has performed with the cast for 25 years, said. “They aren’t expecting it — how did this little church in this little town do all this?”

For the members of the First Baptist Church of Burnet, the answer begins 25 years ago, when a lightbulb flicked on in PEC member Norman Leftwich’s brain.

Humble beginnings

In the early 1990s, Leftwich was driving home from work when he was seized by the idea that would put Burnet on the (recreated, ancient) map.

“Everyone was so inspired when he told us,” Leftwich’s wife, PEC member Frankie Leftwich, remembered. “The church didn’t have any money at the time, but Seton Hospital down in Austin let us buy sheets for a quarter a pound. We built wooden frames to nail them to, and spray-painted them. Those were our town’s first walls.”

The event attracted around 3,000 guests that first year.

“We were so excited, we were standing on our heads,” Frankie Leftwich said, laughing.

Today, Main Street Bethlehem draws between 25,000 and 30,000 guests from around the world to its six performances each December. The cloth-and-frame structures have been replaced by more than a dozen permanent stone homes and buildings, including a jail, a tavern, shops and the inn (where, when visitors enter, they’re told is full). For longtime participants, like PEC member and Main Street Bethlehem head costumer Judy Lightfoot, the growth and success of the event seem like a miracle.

“It’s been a journey,” Lightfoot said. “I didn’t know what I was saying yes to when Norman proposed this — I don’t think any of us did. I never dreamed we could do this.”

It takes a village to make a village

For the 250 cast and crew members, Main Street Bethlehem is an enormous undertaking. Casting takes place in August each year, with training and rehearsals beginning in earnest each October.

Though there are no scripts, cast members are given tips and notes to help them develop their characters — think about how far you’ve traveled, think about how your wares are made — to create an authentic experience for guests. The cast members hail visitors with the Hebrew greeting “Shalom,” explain that they’ll be returning to Bathsheba soon, bemoan their poverty under Caesar.

“It’s really a year-round effort,” explained PEC member James Halbert, the chair of the church’s Main Street Bethlehem committee. “And there are a tremendous amount of people who work on the grounds who aren’t cast members, doing carpentry, maintenance, coordinating the animals. It’s not just the 250 cast and crew members — the whole town is really behind this.”

From history to tradition

Amid the maze of stone walls and flickering lantern light, many visitors find an escape from the commercialism surrounding the holiday season, as well as something else: an enduring family tradition.

“We see families come back year after year,” Christiansen said. “It’s been something my family has done for 25 years. It just says ‘Christmas’ to me, and I think that holds true for many families.”

Learn more about Main Street Bethlehem, including visitor tips and daily wet-weather closures, here.