Bridgewater church plans drive-thru Nativity as 'Christmas gift' to community

BRIDGEWATER — Many holiday season traditions will not be possible this year due to the pandemic, but Bridgewater Congregational Church has come up with a unique offering that officials hope will safely fill that void in the community.

The church will present a drive-thru Nativity scene on Dec. 19 from 4 to 6 p.m. In case of inclement weather, the event would be held Dec. 20.

“This thing has taken on a life of its own,” said Larry Neary, a churchgoer and member of the church’s Operation Comfort and Joy, which is planning the event.

Motorists will step back in time when they arrive at the Clapboard Road church, first driving under a “Welcome to Bethlehem” banner. Once in the “town,” attendees will experience several vignettes depicting the Christmas story.

Church members and friends dressed as townspeople will greet motorists and hand out a few special gifts, including a small battery-operated candle that can be placed on the dashboard or held in a passenger’s hand for the experience.

Families with children will be given a Nativity sticker book, a children’s book with a “sweet story” and a treat, while supplies last, Neary said.

As motorists drive through Bethlehem, they will view the inn where Mary and Joseph were turned away; five merchants — a potter, weaver, wood carver, baker and glassworker, all with tools of their trade; angels; shepherds rounding up their flock of sheep; three kings; and a manger, where Mary gave birth to Jesus.

“We thought, ‘What a wonderful thing to buoy people’s spirits a little,’” at this time of year, said Candy Smith, chair of Operation Comfort and Joy.

The collaborative activity is spearheaded by the church, but other community members are involved, including those who own businesses in neighboring towns. First Selectman Curtis Read will even assume the role of a shepherd.

“This is the church’s Christmas gift to the town,” said the church’s interim pastor, the Rev. Daniel England. “That’s really why we’re doing it.”

Thirty-five actors are lined up to portray characters from the story, and animals from Mayapple Hill Farm in New Milford will participate.

Nature View Farm has donated hay bales, and Wayne Woodard is loaning the pens and fencing for the animals.

“This is evolving into something special,” Neary said. “It gets better all the time.”

Christmas music will be piped outside, and wooden cutouts of animals and other scenery will be lighted as a backdrop as motorists drive through the parking lot.

Resident Walter Von Egidy, owner of New Milford Sign Shop, is one of the local business owners who plans to help bring the nativity to life.

After hearing the church’s proposal for a drive-thru Nativity, Neary’s wife, Sandra, suggested a set designer come aboard.

“I remember the first living Nativity (the church had) several years ago, which made a big impression on me,” said Von Egidy. “Because of that, I was more than happy to take part in it.”

Von Egidy and church member Dick Jones are in charge of creating the inn scene. Jones will handle the carpentry and Von Egidy will focus on the art that will grace the 16-foot-long set.

Resident Art Foote, owner of KatArt Graphics in New Milford, donated a “Welcome to Bethlehem” banner for the special event.

“I always like to be a supporter of our community,” he said of the donation. “And we always enjoy seeing what (the church) has plans to do.”

England said since the town’s tree lighting ceremony won’t take place this year, this festive offering “seemed like a great event.”

“We have no idea if we’ll get five cars or 500,” he said.

Safety precautions will be in place, with masks and social distancing, he emphasized.

“People won’t leave their cars, so it’s going to be safe,” Neary said.

Neary said he is optimistic the event will be successful.

“If this works this year, we may do it every year,” he said.