‘Journey to Bethlehem’ ends a 30-year tradition
December 10. 2008 6:00AM
Dale Thorpe has stood watch over the stable of Mary and Joseph for many years.
His role as innkeeper has allowed him to look out at the crowd of hundreds gathered at Otto and Linda Hagedorn’s farm near Tea for the Journey to Bethlehem live Nativity pageant.
Thorpe, 72, has watched awestruck visitors as they looked upon the cradle of baby Jesus, played each year by a newborn.
“It’s a privilege,” Thorpe says. “It’s humbling to know the significance of it.”
After this year, though, Thorpe will put aside his robe and headpiece, the same costume he and other innkeepers have worn since the first year of the pageant in 1977.
This will be the 30th and final year for the Journey to Bethlehem pageant.
Organizers from Prairie Hills Covenant Church in Tea are refocusing their mission and declining pageant attendance contributed to the decision.
“Every ministry has a life cycle. We wanted to end this strong, while we are still enjoying it. It will be bittersweet,” Prairie Hills co-pastor Dawn Burnett says. Dawn and Andrew Burnett have been co-pastors at the church for nine years.
There’s something about being outside and watching the Nativity scene that brings the meaning of Christmas home, organizers say.
“The emotions are intense when you’re in a dirty old barn with the cobwebs – to think Christ was born in a humble stable,” host and organizer Linda Hagedorn said.
The live Nativity follows the procession of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem and includes recorded narration, music and spotlights. The cast includes shepherds, wisemen and townspeople, along with live animals such as sheep, donkeys and, a first for the final year, camels.
The last baby Jesus title will fall to Joy Christiaansen on Saturday and Julian Morris on Sunday. Julian’s older sister, 4-year-old Miriam, and 2-year-old brother Julius previously played the part.
The pageant has been held annually with the exception of 1999, when organizers decided to take the year off. It started with 17 performances over two weekends. Pageant performances have slowly dwindled to two performances per year, with crowds of about 300.
In the first years of the pageant, total performances drew crowds of 3,000 or more, Ruth Barram, 91, of Parkston says. Her husband, Norman, was pastor of Prairie Hills when Linda Hagedorn brought the Nativity idea to him. The Barrams spent seven years at Prairie Hills.
Ruth Barram plans to attend the final performance. She calls the event a milestone but says the story is everlasting.
Linda Hagedorn had wanted to organize a live Nativity since childhood. After she and her husband, Otto, moved to South Dakota in 1976, their home east of Tea seemed the perfect location. She approached Norman Barram about starting one in fall 1977.
The Hagedorns see the event as a ministry to the community.
“For many of the children, it wasn’t Christmas until they came to the pageant,” Otto Hagedorn says.
He will remember the smaller mishaps of each performance, like when Mary and Joseph wandered ahead of the music or when a donkey wouldn’t start walking.
Hagedorn shrugs when trying to explain what the last performance will be like. “I guess that’s it. Things change.”
His wife remains more optimistic. “It may be the last of a performance, but it’s a history that goes on forever.”
The pageant has been a solo effort by Prairie Hills since the beginning, except for a combined pageant effort in 2001 and 2002 with Harvest Covenant Church in Sioux Falls and Living Springs Covenant in Brandon.
“It’s an event that involves most of the church family, all jumping in one way or another. It’s really quite beautiful in a simple kind of way,” co-pastor Dawn Burnett says.
Much of the pageant is still the same as the first performance. Neil Parker and Robert Ruckelshausen wrote the original script together. Ruckelshausen is the original narrator. The main change occurred in 2000 when the voices and music were changed.
Through the years, organizers also added an angel lift. In the two years Hagedorn played the high angel, she envisioned herself in other roles while looking over the crowd.
“You’re looking down on it all. You think of how it might have been to be a shepherd out in the field.”
Hagedorn again plays the high angel in the Dec. 14 performance.
Roles such as Mary have been coveted by girls in the congregation over the years, Ross says.
Ross, who has been involved with the pageant since playing an angel the first year at age 12, grew up with the pageant. She has played roles from Mary to a townsperson. Her son, David, played baby Jesus in 1983.
Ross has mixed emotions about the pageant ending.
“It’s a relief to try something different, but it’s a part of your growing-up years,” she said.
Linda Hagedorn prefers not to use terms like final and last when describing the pageant. The story will continue, she says.
“How do you bring the Journey to Bethlehem to an end?”