FOND DU LAC — Fond du Lac may be a long way from Palestine, but on the evening of Sunday, Dec. 3, Holy Family Catholic Community on the city’s east side became a remarkable stand-in for the little town of Bethlehem when the story of Christ’s birth came to life in an epic production that blended drama, music and Scripture for an audience of almost 1,000 people.

Elise Winkel, portraying Mary in the live Nativity staged by Holy Family Parish, Fond du Lac, on Sunday, Dec. 3, holds up baby Jesus, played by her 6-week-old nephew, Arthur Dunphy. (Submitted photo by Matthew Rodenkirch, Holy Family Catholic Community Staff)

“It went off without a hitch,” said Elise Winkel, who played the Blessed Mother in the hour-long living Nativity show, which featured dozens of fully costumed parish staff members, live animals and a choir of over 100 singers. “There were no hiccups; it was a well-oiled machine!” she added.

It was Winkel, family life coordinator at Holy Family, who pitched the idea for the living Nativity to the parish last winter. She envisioned it as an opportunity not only to bring the parish together in an grand Advent celebration but also to engage the wider Fond du Lac community.

“I thought it would be kind of a cool thing to do since we’ve never had a big (event),” she said of the show staged at the largest of the parish’s four worship sites. “I thought this would be a fun, very different thing to get Holy Family’s name out into the community of Fond du Lac.”

It seems to have worked – not only did tickets sell out in just over four weeks earlier this fall, but social media interest has been skyrocketing in the days since Dec. 3.

“We’ve actually had 64,000 people with post-engagement in the past two days,” Winkel said, referring to views, likes, shares and comments on the Holy Family Facebook page’s posts about the live Nativity. Post-engagement on the page is up over 3,000 percent, she added, with dozens of new likes. “It went almost-viral.”

Holy Family associate pastor Fr. John Mitchell called it an “amazing, powerful show … a series of poignant snapshots that brought the story of Christ’s birth to life.”

“It was a really blessed experience,” he said.

Three associate pastors = three wise men

Providentially, Holy Family Parish has three associate pastors who were ready and willing to fill the roles of the three kings traversing field and fountain, moor and mountain.

It was the grand entrance of Frs. Mitchell, Thomas Naidu and Maximo Tzul, magnificently arrayed in kingly attire and riding camels that scaled over 10 feet, that stole the show, said Winkel.

Mary, riding a donkey and played by Elise Winkel, processes into church with Joseph, left, played by real-life husband Devin Winkel, and an animal handler from Glacier Ridge Animal Farm, right, who leads the donkey, during the live Nativity at Holy Family which featured live animals and dozens of costumed staff members. (Submitted photo by Matthew Rodenkirch, Holy Family Catholic Community Staff)

“The kids were just going crazy when these camels came out in the back and walked down the aisle,” she said.

“People were really excited – children were screaming – we received very good feedback,” said Fr. Naidu.

“It brought to life for me what a long, arduous journey the wise men had as they followed the star,” said Fr. Mitchell. “These camels were not extremely comfortable.”

The cast participated in a run-through the evening before the show, but it was without the animals — so the show was a real baptism by fire for Fr. Naidu the next day when he was asked to be the first to climb aboard the beasts.

“I was waiting nearly 45 minutes on the camel before the show began. They asked me to climb the first one to see how the camel would react (to its surroundings). It went mad – I think it was afraid of the clothes we were wearing, and when the other two kings climbed on their camels, mine was very sensitive. He was not behaving like the other two! I was really praying … I was prepared to jump down in case anything happened!”

Fr. Tzul rode the largest mount, a dromedary (two-humped) camel, and reported it was a remarkably more regal experience than his last camel-riding stint while visiting Petra in the country of Jordan several years ago.

“(In Petra) there was nothing more than a blanket on top of the camel. But (for the living Nativity), of course, it was designed for a king!” he said. “So it was really, really comfortable.”

Actions speak louder than words

Though all of the attendees had undoubtedly heard the Nativity story scores of times, the experience of seeing it acted out, accompanied by special effects lighting and professional music, was something unique.

“We always preach and read the text for the people, but the show helps to carry the image very powerfully in mind and hearts,” said Fr. Naidu. “We have a phrase in English: the action speaks louder than the words.”

Many of the elaborate costumes were acquired through the Fond du Lac community theater, while others were handmade using donations from the parish quilting group. Many props – like an authentic Amish shepherd’s crook – were donated from other members of the parish, which numbers about 6,300 families.

Holy Family’s three associate pastors, Frs. Maximo Tzul, left to right, Thomas Naidu and John Mitchell riding atop camels are the three wise men in the live Nativity led by animal handlers from Jo-Don Farms. (Submitted photo by Matthew Rodenkirch, Holy Family Catholic Community Staff)

It was the tapestry of these details that brought a new dimension to the audience’s understanding of the tale, said Fr. Mitchell.

“These were smelly, dirty animals – it really struck me how Jesus truly became man,” he said. “He was born into a world without Windex! The humility of his coming into this world pointed out to me the depth of his love for us.”

The baby Jesus was played by Winkel’s 6-week-old nephew, Arthur Dunphy.

“He cried just enough to where people knew he was real,” she said.

At the production’s climax, after the narrator read John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son …” – the choir sang the “Hallelujah chorus” from Handel’s “Messiah;” Winkel lifted Dunphy for the whole church to see, and the entire cast extended their hands toward him.

“It was a moment of seeing that Jesus was a real, tiny, squirming baby, but also King of Kings and Lord of Lords,” said Fr. Mitchell.

“There were audible sobs from the audience,” said Winkel.

And the animals were remarkably well-behaved, said Fr. Tzul.

“It seems they are Catholics,” he quipped.

A wise man reflects

His role prompted Fr. Tzul to a deeper understanding of how all Christians are like the wise men.

“It is amazing to see the longing or the deep desire to seek Jesus in those kings, coming from so far from home,” he said. “I think that is the longing in the heart or the natural desire of every people. We must discover that. It is not because they were the kings – it is the human desire to seek somebody else, rather than ourselves.”

Furthermore, said Fr. Tzul, the production reminded him of the extraordinary significance of these three prestigious individuals coming to bow before the Christ child, an infant born into poverty.

“That is the idea of Psalm 72 – that all nations should come to the king born in Bethlehem – all authority on earth must recognize that over their own authority there is a higher authority,” he said. “I think that is something that we never can remark enough upon. Sometimes we forget our humanity when we are dressed with authority. These three magi, these three kings, the three wise men – they really make this point: that they recognize that over all authority, there is a higher one.”

The production also provided a setting in which people could contemplate “the divinity within the humanity” of Jesus, said Fr. Tzul.

“It is easy to … try to contemplate the divinity (of Christ) but there is no divinity – at least in Jesus’ incarnation, passion, death and resurrection – there is no divinity without humanity,” he said. “We should not only seek for the miracle but also for the effort of the human being. If we can catch that theology – if we can catch that message – how different can be humanity! To see anybody not only as human beings … but as the presence of divinity.

Elise Winkel, portraying Mary in the live Nativity staged by Holy Family Parish, Fond du Lac, on Sunday, Dec. 3, holds up baby Jesus, played by her 6-week-old nephew, Arthur Dunphy. (Submitted photo by Matthew Rodenkirch, Holy Family Catholic Community Staff)

“For example, if parents can see the divine part in their kids; if kids can see the divine part in their parents. If spouses can see the divine part in their partner. Marriage would be great, family would be great – because they are not only human beings with needs, but also divine.”

Plans to repeat the performance

The production featured 50 actors (many of them parish staff members) and a menagerie of animals from Glacier Ridge Animal Farm of Van Dyne in Fond du Lac County and Jo-Don Farms of Milwaukee. There was also a petting zoo following the performance where families could interact with camels, chickens, donkeys, goats and a host of other animals from the show – as well as some that weren’t necessarily present at the birth of Christ.

If there was a downside to the event, said Fr. Naidu, it was that more of the parishioners were not able to experience it in person due to space restrictions. As a missionary priest hailing from India and having served in Africa and South America, he has done similar performances for Easter and Christmas outdoors for crowds of hundreds, free of cost.

“Here, the weather matters – people need to stay inside,” he said.

Because so many of the parish’s members were unable to get tickets for the show, a Blu-Ray of the performance was made and will soon be available for purchase.

And the event was such a success that the parish is planning to repeat it in 2018.

“The only question we’ve gotten is, ‘When are you guys going to do this again?’” said Winkel.