NORTH AUGUSTA — One of Aiken County's largest Christmas events is under way this week, with downtown North Augusta drawing extra traffic and playing host to an assortment of biblical characters, from camels and goats to wise men and angelic visitors.

Grace United Methodist Church's “Return to Bethlehem” began Wednesday and is to continue through Saturday, offering a recreation of Jesus' birthplace as it might have looked about 2,000 years ago.

The show is held 6 to 9 p.m., with drive-through access available for handicapped visitors who are parked in front of the Wesley Center by 5:45 p.m.

“It's a re-enactment of the night of Jesus' birth,” said Marianne Harlan, Grace's administrator and director of worship art.

“We try to rebuild Bethlehem and create the sights, the sounds, the smells of Bethlehem on the night that Jesus was born, and we also tell the story leading up to that, beginning with the angels' announcement to Mary that she is with child, and we have a few scenes that lead up to the Bethlehem village.”

The free, biennial event, dating back to 1998, has about 350 volunteers and dozens of animals as part of the mix. Escorts in full costume guide visitors through the “village,” ultimately leading to the manger scene.

“It's a reminder, to me, about what the star of Bethlehem really is all about and what Christmas is all about,” said volunteer Bill Thweatt, who is serving among the Magi this week, with such peers as Kent Sullivan, Lou Wagner, Bruce Wilson, Dan Taylor and David Hobbs.

Actors work in one of two shifts each evening – one from 6 to 7:30 p.m. and the second from 7:30 to about 9 p.m.

Some of volunteers serve in multiple roles. Elizabeth Parler, 15, is wearing at least four hats, having been a villager Wednesday and planning to be an angel today, Mary Friday and a musician Saturday.

“I like to try all the different roles each time we have it,” she said, noting that her role as a musician includes singing five or six songs. All but one are in Hebrew, and the other is in English, she said.

Referring to the overall experience, she said, “I think it really puts me in the Christmas spirit and helps me ... really experience it and understand it on a different level.”

Thweatt made similar comments. “Another thing that is a great joy in it is to see the smaller children and how much they enjoy seeing the actual live animals. It just makes an impression on them – not just the live animals but really an impression of what Christmas is about,” he said.

Visitors go to the sanctuary first, to wait their turn and receive basic information, and then are divided into small groups to walk through the presentation.

Harlan said, “We, at Grace, do it as a gift to the community. We don't ask for admission and we don't ask for donations. It's supposed to parallel God's love to us, which is unconditional and ours for the taking with no strings attached. We want to do that same thing for our community.”

Thweatt noted that preparation begins in mid-summer, when costumes are repaired. The set starts to take shape in early November and is put into place a few yards off East Avenue.

Harlan said the event, now in its 10th presentation, has attracted about 35,000 visitors over the years. She said they hope to reach the 40,000 mark this year.

The church is at 639 Georgia Ave. For more information, call 279-7525.

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