The Parish Center at St. Mary in Random Lake was converted to look like a public square in the time of Jesus’ birth during Our Lady of the Lakes’ “A Night in Bethlehem” event Dec. 1. (Photo by Larry Hanson)

The first rule of ancient Bethlehem: don’t forget to sign the census.

“Be sure to include your hometown,” a Roman soldier reminded visitors as he presented a large scroll with a feather pen.

The weather outside may have been somewhat colder and snowier than it was on the night of Jesus’ birth, and the language spoken in the bustling marketplace was, admittedly, not Aramaic. But, no one could deny that, on the evening of Friday, Dec. 1, in the transformed Parish Center of St. Mary’s in Random Lake, the words of the angel in the Gospel of Luke felt real and true: “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”

“A Night in Bethlehem” was hosted by Our Lady of the Lakes Parish as part of Random Lake’s Night of Lights holiday celebration, which took place throughout the village’s picturesque downtown area.

The ecumenical effort to recreate the ancient city of the birth of Christ in the small Sheboygan County community was the brainchild of parishioner Julie Binder, who said she was inspired by a similar interactive experience she visited in Appleton during Advent last year.

“It’s something I’ve wanted to do forever,” she said. This year, she retired from her full-time job as a florist, and it seemed like the perfect time to bring Bethlehem to Random Lake. She enlisted the help of her fellow parishioners as well as several other churches in the area — Zion United Methodist Church of Batavia, St. John United Church of Christ in Random Lake and St. Paul Lutheran Church in Random Lake.

“I’m just amazed they all said yes,” said Binder of the several dozen costumed actors who brought Christ’s hometown to life. “Everybody I asked to help said yes. There’s got to be God behind that, don’t you think?”

The event invited participants into “the sights, sounds, smells and flavors of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth.” It was an animated, joyful scene, as visitors, including many young families, roamed from booth to booth in the commercial area (staged in the gymnasium of the Parish Center, which was originally a school building).

They engaged in conversation with the local baker as she kneaded dough and the basket maker as her granddaughter wove baskets. The local carpenter showed examples of historic lathes and drills while children practiced the Hebrew alphabet at the Jewish school. At the temple, a Levite explained the worship practices of God’s Chosen People. A table spread with cookies offered a hands-on experience of what spices like anise, fenugreek, Aleppo peppers and za’atar looked, smelled, tasted and felt like. At a neighboring table, figs, Kalamata olives and dates were offered. Each child was given two “shekels” to purchase goods that included a small woven doll, a wooden ornament, a dreidel and a basket with flowers hand assembled by Binder.

From the gymnasium, visitors filed into the school hallway, which was strung with twinkling lights to resemble a sky filled with stars. They encountered the young Holy Family, who could find no room at the inn, and the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. As they progressed through the experience, visitors met an angel who proclaimed the good news, a family of shepherds seeking the newborn child, and finally encountered the three wise men and their gifts.

Binder’s good friend Terri Yoho, a member of Zion United Methodist Church, called the experience “otherworldly” and said she witnessed it touch the hearts of visitors from different backgrounds and of different ages.

“Near the end of the evening, an older woman came in and she was chatting with me a little bit, and she literally started crying,” said Binder, who portrayed the baker of Bethlehem. “She said, ‘This is just so amazing.’ I felt like I was in a Hallmark movie, where they have one of these amazing small-town festivals and everyone is there. In a world of trouble, it was a moment of respite.”

Our Lady of the Lakes Parish Director Deb Hamm said at the end of the night, 570 people had signed their names to the census.

“But there were other visitors who told me that they didn’t sign, or that they signed in as a family.  I think we easily had more than 600 people attend,” she estimated. The population of the village of Random Lake was 1,553 at the 2020 Census.

Hamm praised Binder’s “great vision” as well as the dedication of Binder’s “right-hand” volunteer, fellow parishioner Lori Hubing. “There were scores of other volunteers that stepped up to help make this happen,” Hamm said. “They put in countless hours to help so many people get a feel for what it might have been like in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago.”

Yoho said that she heard no complaints all night from the dozens of volunteers — other than the oft-expressed wish that “A Night in Bethlehem” was extended to more than just one evening.

“I think one of the reasons for the success was that there were all ages involved,” Yoho said.

Binder, for her part, said that she thinks the success of the event is proof that “there’s a need and a hunger for religion right now in the world.”

“I just think to see so many people together, all different religions, nationalities — because God is universal,” she said. “This is a way we can show that. We’re all here to be taken back in time.”