CLEMSON — Several thousand Upstate residents took a holiday stroll together last weekend, but there wasn’t any caroling — and none of the typical warmth and cheer found this time of year.
Instead, they received rather rough treatment from Roman soldiers and census takers as the modern day Christians stepped back some 2,000 years into the streets and shops of the town of Bethlehem and became Jewish travelers.
Many of those travelers were looking for a place to stay that night in the already crowded town, filled with rumors of the birth of a special newborn boy given the name “Jesus.”
There wasn’t room at the inn for the travelers, but the rumors were indeed true — they saw the newborn child with his parents, Mary and Joseph.
“This is a gift from the Clemson churches to the community,” said Bonnie Stevens, co-coordinator of “Return to Bethlehem,” a multi-denominational celebration of Christmas.
About 1,000 members of eight Clemson churches, including more than 100 parishioners from St. Andrew and St. Paul the Apostle parishes, stage the two-day show every other year during Advent.
Close to 60 actors from the seven churches perform on the Bethlehem set in two-hour shifts, clothed in period dress. They serve as weavers, shepherds, innkeepers, stable hands, bread bakers, pottery makers, herb sellers, rabbis, beggars and prophets.
Each church assigns its members to specific roles. This year St. Andrew and St. Paul parishioners were weavers, shepherds, innkeepers and stable hands.
“We also provide guides,” said Stevens, a parishioner at St. Andrew. The guides lead each small group of “Jewish travelers” to Bethlehem’s town limit, where they are met by the Roman soldiers.
The re-enactment of the town during the birth of Christ is so authentic that parents are advised to reassure their younger children that what they are seeing and hearing isn’t the real thing.
Lee Woods and his daughter, Sarah, were shepherds.
“We wanted to be a part of the real Christmas celebration,” said Woods, a parishioner at St. Andrew.
Church members design and build the town’s set and collect the fabric and sew the garments worn by the various performers, including the armor worn by the soldiers.
The set is erected in the Family Life Center at Trinity Wesleyan Church. Other churches participating include Clemson United Methodist, First Baptist of Clemson, Fort Hill Presbyterian, Holy Trinity Episcopal and University Lutheran.
Those waiting to enter Bethlehem are assigned to an ancient Hebrew tribe and wait in the church sanctuary for their tribe’s name to be called.
Upon entering Bethlehem, the group walks through the town’s crowded streets, past merchants offering their wares, beggars pleading for alms and the ever-present Roman soldiers. Then they make their way past a synagogue where a rabbi tries to dispel the rumors, past the booked-up inn and finally to the manger and the baby Jesus.
“I think most people really enjoy it,” Woods said. “The purpose of ‘Return to Bethlehem’ is to make us think what Christmas is really about, and I think it does that.”
During each “Return to Bethlehem,” donations collected by the “beggars” go to a local charity. This year’s beneficiary was Safe Harbor II in Anderson, a shelter for victims of domestic violence and abuse.