The late Irene Marinke, left, and Barbara Brown, seated, were the founders of the living nativity tradition. At right is the late Hermon Woodworth. PHOTO COURTESY OF NORMA SPURLING

Making of a living nativity

BAR HARBOR — The Christmas season can be busy and stressful for families juggling work, school, events and parties, shopping, decorating … it goes on.

But for about an hour and twenty minutes on two evenings each December, some members of the Bar Harbor Congregational Church get very quiet.

The annual living nativity at the Bar Harbor Congregational Church includes two casts who stand in the tableau for two shifts of twenty minutes each. This year’s event is set for Thursday, Dec. 19, and Friday, Dec. 20, from 6 p.m. to 7:20 p.m. ISLANDER FILE PHOTO

“Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” That’s how the gospel of Luke describes the quiet at the heart of the nativity scene, even with noisy animals, spectators and children milling about.

A cast of about 20 people, with at least a dozen more backstage support crew, gather on the church steps to create a living nativity. This year’s event is set for Thursday, Dec. 19, and Friday, Dec. 20, from 6 p.m. to 7:20 p.m.

The scene includes Mary, Joseph and an angel gathered around a baby (a doll) Jesus, with three shepherds on one side and three wise men on the other. Sometimes children play additional shepherds, seated on hay bales. Carols play through the church carillion.

Two casts of nine adults plus a few children each take turns standing in the outdoor tableau, without moving or speaking, for 20 minutes at a time. At the end of each period, the lights go out and another cast comes out to replace the first, who head inside the parish hall for supper and hot chocolate. Each cast performs two 20-minute periods.

Norma Spurling is stepping down this year as the coordinator of the living nativity, a role she has held since about 1995. She inherited it from the late Irene Marinke and Barbara Brown, who founded it in 1973. This year, Spurling is handing the reins to Laurie Riddell.

Norma Spurling, right, has been directing the living nativity since the mid-1990s. She’s pictured with her daughter Maria Lopez, who recently played Mary. PHOTO COURTESY OF NORMA SPURLING

In the early years, the scene was set up out on the church lawn, but moved to the steps one year when the lawn was torn up for a renovation project.

“Nobody told the characters they had to stand still the whole time,” Marinke told the Bar Harbor Times in the 1980s. “They just did it naturally and it became a tableau, rather than a staged piece.”

In the same article, Brown said the church often received requests from theater groups and other organizations to use the costumes for other productions. “But these are to be used for only one purpose at one time of year. It’s part of what makes it special for us and those who see the creche.”

The costumes are stored in a special closet in the church, which since 2007 has borne a plaque which reads, “This closet is dedicated to the memory of Irene Marinke and Barbara Brown, founders of the Annual Living Nativity in 1973.”

The costumes are elaborate and many of the original ones from the 70s are still in use. Many of the shepherds and wise men are quite tall; costume helpers have to stand on pews to help get their turbans and head coverings arranged properly.

In the early years, the late Herm Woodworth was also very involved in the project, taking the lead on lighting and other logistics. These days Dave Lind works with Spurling, and now Riddell, to set up and focus the lights. He also takes photographs.

“I’ve loved every moment of it,” Spurling told the Islander last week. “Nobody complains about anything. I’ve had no problems whatsoever — just the weather!”

The living nativity has gone on in very cold weather, snow and light rain, but heavy rain is a dealbreaker, Spurling said. “No rain, but if it’s cold, no problem. They’re all bundled up good.”

There are no rehearsals per se, but if a cast member is new she will talk them through what to expect.

At times in the past a real baby has been part of the nativity, but these days a doll is used instead. Spurling’s scrapbook also includes an image of a runaway sheep, which she says is a reminder of why they’ve opted not to use live animals in the nativity.

The younger shepherds hold stuffed lambs, she said. “We give them something to hold so they have someone to think about.” The young cast members have been “wonderful,” she said; they don’t seem to struggle with sitting still.

A photo of longtime cast member Dave Woodside getting into costume appeared in the Bangor Daily News in 1999. He was quoted in the caption as saying that the nativity “really gets your mind into the reality of the season.”

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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