St. John's takes visitors on 'A Visit to Bethlehem'

| Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, 8:52 p.m.

For just the cost of crates of grapes, St. John's Lutheran Church of Highland in McCandless will host another “A Visit to Bethlehem” from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and again Dec. 8 and 9.

“The grapes are very necessary,” said Dawn Andersson, who has helped to organize the biennial event for most of its years.

While the clusters aren't as good-looking as those sold at the retail level, she said, the Strip District produce serves its purpose well.

“They're mushed the first minute they put their feet in it,” she said of the children who look forward to stomping grapes at the vineyard.

“It's a coveted job, but you have to be tall enough to reach the ropes to hold onto. There's never a lack for grape stompers.”

What “A Visit to Bethlehem” provides is a glimpse into the village where Christmas began more than 2,000 years ago.

Back in 1998, members of the congregation designed a street full of shops for merchants, such as bakers, basket and textile weavers, carpenters, potters and herbalists. Church members also dress as townspeople, shepherds, an innkeeper and beggars — one played ably by the Rev. William Diehm, the congregation's pastor.

“He's the best beggar,” said Andersson, 74, of Marshall Township.

“He really smells the part. We're going for reality here. You can't stand in his presence. People just throw money in his burlap bag and run.”

Any money collected supports North Hills Community Outreach.

In just 30 minutes, participants can be engulfed by the sights, sounds and aromas of the replicated town with its costumed residents. And at the end of their journey, they'll discover a quiet little cave, where a baby lies in a manger.

“There's so much hustle and bustle, noise, incense and the smell of grapes fermenting,” Andersson, who manages the weaving shop, said.

“They're never quite prepared when entering the manger. The look on their faces says they've seen something special.”

Families with newborns often take the parts of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Often, families use a photo of their portrayal as the cover of their Christmas cards.

“Sometimes, a church member borrows a baby from a relative,” Andersson said.

“It's a gift we give to the community,” said Eric Kofmehl, 60, a church council member from McCandless.

“It's become a tradition for those doing the effort and people coming year after year.”

Over the years, he has watched the popularity of the event grow.

“There were some involved as newborns, and now, they're shepherds,” he said.

“It's a great, happy time.”

In addition to the weekend visits, special arrangements can be made during the week for children's tours. Students from private schools and preschools have taken part.

At the end of the weekend visits, participants can have a lunch that the church's youth group will serve. And shopping is available at the Olive Branch and Women of the Cloud Forest tables. Each offers items made in developing countries.

St. John's event is the way to “start the season off right,” Andersson said.

Some of the original people still are involved, she explained, and new members get involved every year “A Visit to Bethlehem” is planned.

“There's joy in the message it gives to the community,” said Andersson, “and it shows the closeness and love we have for each other.”

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or

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