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For a star, they must find Jesus
Planners of live nativities spend all year looking for a way to fill mangers.
By S.I. ROSENBAUM, Times Staff Writer
Published December 18, 2007
Five-month-old Sadie Settles is held by Ashley Corral of Seffner during the Cornerstone Baptist Church drive-through Nativity. The baby's parents, Molly and Todd Settles, waited inside.
[Kathleen Flynn | Times]
BRANDON - It's barely September when Evelyn Brown starts hunting for babies.
She sits down with the phone and dials.
"Hello," she says when the line picks up. "I hear you have Baby Jesus living with you."
Each year, dozens of churches across the Tampa Bay area stage live nativities. Visitors can stroll or drive past scenes from the Bible, featuring live actors, live sheep, and - most importantly - live Baby Jesuses.
At Kings Avenue Baptist Church in Brandon, Brown has been the unofficial baby wrangler for seven years. She knows that babies are crucial for productions like her church's popular Walk Through Bethlehem.
"We're going for reality," she said, "so to come around the corner and see a doll would be anticlimactic."
Live babies can nestle in mangers, coo in Mary's arms and remind a weary public that there's more to the holiday than the mall.
But babies are also a limited resource.
Consider: A live nativity might run for four hours a night, for three nights in a row. Most babies can stay placid under the lights for about a half-hour shift, especially if the weather is nippy.
Even considering repeat shifts, that's a lot of babies.
And often, there's competition for eligible infants.
While Brown was tracking down babies for Kings Baptist Church, not far away Kaye Matthew was doing the same for Cornerstone Baptist.
This year her small congregation produced only one baby. Matthew had to look elsewhere, calling friends, co-workers, friends of co-workers.
"We always scout around and put out the word for people who have little babies," Matthew said. "Mom and dad could come along and be Mary and Joseph, or we'll provide a very nice Mary to hold their baby for them."
She said she even received a call from another church, asking if they could borrow any of her babies.
Alas, she told them, none of her babies fit their requirements.
Most churches will accept babies of any color, creed or gender.
At St. Paul United Methodist Church in Largo, nativity organizer Debbie Brimacombe says Jesus is a baby girl.
Will anyone notice?
"The earrings might give people a clue," she said.
But no one will mind, she said: "A baby's a baby. God loves them all."
Brimacombe does have one requirement: Baby Jesus has to be under eight months old.
You don't want Baby Jesus talking or trying to run off the set, she explained.
Other churches have different takes on the age issue. Brown won't accept infants older than four months.
This year, her youngest baby was barely a few weeks old - the new parents had volunteered at the last minute.
On the other hand, Matthew said she actually prefers older babies.
"With a tiny baby it's harder to see what's in there," she said. "It could be a roll of paper towels. When they're older, they're easier to see."
But booking babies is only half the baby wrangler's job. Once you've found six or eight babies, you have to keep them all happy.
"We know Baby Jesus fussed," said Brown. "He was God, but he was also human, and he had his crying times."
Still, no one wants to see Baby Jesus cry.
At Cornerstone Baptist, it's part of Matthew's job to swap out restless babies, replacing them with a fresh baby from backstage.
She tries to keep the nativity scenes historically authentic, but she'll let the babies hold on to blankets, a favorite stuffed animal or a pacifier.
"We want our babies happy," she said.
Of course, some churches do stage nativity scenes the easy way.
At the First Church of the Nazarene in Clearwater, church secretary Angela Thiscator said it never occurred to her to look outside the congregation for babies.
"We don't have many newborns here at the church," she said. "We just figured the baby doll would be the solution."
For Brown, though, live babies will always be heart of the nativity scene.
This year's Walk Through Bethlehem ended last week, but she has already recruited a baby for next year.