If Mary and Joseph were looking for a little alone time after Jesus was born, it’s a good thing they weren’t searching for an inn in Calne, England.

Earlier this month, a whopping 1,254 Calne residents descended upon the village green in costumes for a re-enactment of Jesus’ birth. It set a Guinness World Record in the process, beating out the 1,039 folks in Provo, Utah, which had held the previous record for a living Nativity.

The mega-manger scene reflects the often elaborate ways that Christian groups are working to bring Jesus’ birth to life in a memorable way — and to earn a little publicity on the side.

“It’s a story that’s 2,000 years old: You want it to be something that leaps off the page,’ ” said Pastor Megan Crouch of St. Andrew’s Church in Grand Rapids, Minn., which has organized the region’s most elaborate Christmas pageant each year.

“But I think you can go too far with anything,” she added.

The folks in Calne managed to solve the perennial problem of sad children getting left out of the Christmas pageant. The entire town of about 13,000 was invited to join in the event, co-sponsored by the town council and area Bible Society.

Out came the fake beards, halos, shepherd robes and angel costumes — lots of them. With most folks making their own costumes, a townwide shortage of bed sheets threatened the majesty, reported the Daily Telegraph of London.

A local laundromat came to the rescue, as did other Calne residents who rummaged through their closets to make sure everyone who wanted to be part of a 21st century Bethlehem was outfitted.

On Dec. 5, the area Bible Society posted on Facebook: “Delighted to say that, along with Calne Town Council, we now hold the Guinness World Record for the largest [living] nativity!”

St. Andrew has no plans to take on the winner. But it is among the Minnesota churches that long ago learned that live re-enactments of the Nativity are popular. They draw good crowds and resonate with the faithful.

“When you’re part of the play, it becomes the story of your own family,” Crouch said. “And it’s a valuable way to teach children.”

For more than a decade, a menagerie of dozen animals and at least 20 humans have been stars of the Sunday pageant that attracts between 1,000 and 1,500 people, “depending on the weather,” Crouch said.

While Calne took the record for its human participation, St. Andrew is particularly proud of its animal actors. Staff is on a first-name basis with them.

“We’ve had camels, donkeys, miniature horses, doves, alpacas, goats, and sometimes we even get a ram, whose name is Elvis,” Crouch said. “Our first camel, Joe, died. Our second camel, Joseph, has arthritis and has retired to a life of leisure.”

The church is tailor-made for the drama, with a floor-to-ceiling glass wall looking out on a rolling hill. The pageant begins when Joseph and Mary appear at the top of the hill, Mary on a donkey, as they begin their search for the inn.

The whole scene — animals and all — eventually makes its way inside the church. And out again.

“I think this story is such a fabric of people’s lives,” Crouch said. “You just want to be in it.”


Jean Hopfensperger 612-673-4511