BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Earl the donkey loudly brayed in the darkness, eliciting giggles from the shepherds who were watching their sheep nearby.
Soon, the darkness was broken by headlights, as the first of more than 100 vehicles slowly eased past the Lial Catholic School middle-schoolers portraying the Nativity – the Biblical story of the birth of Jesus during the December 9 annual event.
“This feels like it sets the mood for Christmas,” said Gianna Desch, an eighth-grader who was portraying Mary in a scene where the travelers learned there was no room at the inn.
“I’m super happy to be in this,” said Sandy Horrigan, a seventh-grader dressed as a shepherd. “It’s a very family feeling as we all prepare for this.”
It was 2012 when Jacalyn Flom, the school’s director of advancement, first suggested a drive-thru Nativity as a way to thank the community for supporting the school, which was founded in 1972. Initially, the principal at the time, Sr. Pat McClain, thought she was nuts, Flom laughed, but Sister Pat gave her blessing to give it a try.
With middle school teacher Jenny Chirico on board, they found enough students to take on all of the parts. A local business donated recycled materials and Menard’s provided the paint for the scenery – which has remained unchanged over the years.
“We’re simple. Obviously, something like this isn’t in our budget,” Flom said.
While the school had costumes for plays, the Nativity required attire for more than one Mary and Joseph, so parent Pam McCrea donated her sewing talents to add more.
“We have three scenes with Joseph and Mary, another scene with Mary, two scenes with shepherds, and we’ve got angels all over the place,” Flom said.
Of the 42 middle school students, 30 volunteered to take on a part, and the eighth-grade students get first choice on their roles, Chirico said.
“Usually, they want something working with the animals,” she said, referring to the sheep on loan from the Ryan family and Earl the donkey and Gracie Lou the miniature horse brought by Shanna Kahle. Over the years, the Nativity has also had a camel and alpacas.
There have been some memorable moments, such as when one of the sheep – a pregnant ewe – escaped into the woods 15 minutes before the start of the program.
“We had a bunch of people who had no idea how to deal with livestock out in the woods,” Flom said. “One of the moms got headbutted by the sheep. The next year, we made sure the sheep were firmly tied.”
Managing traffic flow is also important, with parents holding flashlights to guide the way past scenes where the students wordlessly act out the different segments of the Nativity story.
“The hardest part is not talking, because you have to mime,” said Gianna.
One of the three wise men for this year’s Nativity was John Rudski, a Central Catholic sophomore filling in at the last minute for a sick Lial student. John remembers being a wise man in sixth grade and Joseph in eighth grade.
“I got to be with a donkey, which was fantastic, but sometimes the donkey just decided he needed to take a lap, so we got to walk around. I really enjoyed that,” John said.
While he and fellow wise men Harry Rudski and Dylan Hall struck a pose as if peering toward the Christmas star, they noted that after an hour they might get sore necks and need to reposition.
Last year, Harry portrayed Joseph walking up to a canvas door and knocking.
“I think I probably knocked about 100 times,” he said.
Being quiet is also a challenge, the three agree, but John sees a benefit.
“The thing about being a wise man is you’re out here an hour not talking, so the only thing you can do is think. It’s kind of a catalyst for that,” John said.
The weather over the years has ranged from light flurries to frigid cold, but last week’s Nativity took place in the balmy upper 40s.
“They have to stay in character for an hour regardless of the weather. We’ve even had freezing fog. We can do it in any weather except in a downpour,” Flom said.
Even COVID-19 didn’t dampen the Nativity. In fact, as an opportunity arose to participate in one of the few socially distanced Christmas events, people came out in droves, lining up down Davis Road to Weckerly and around the corner to Obee Road. The students stayed an extra half-hour to accommodate all of the vehicles waiting in line. That year also netted the largest number of donations to the students’ charity of choice, Let’s Build Beds.
Each year, the students choose a charity to collect money for during the Nativity, Chirico explained. This year, it’s Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality Kitchen on Hill Avenue. Previous charities have included Beach House, Family House, Heartbeat, La Posada and Catholic Charities.
“The kids do some research and propose who we should support,” Chirico said.
Typically, donations collected at the end of the drive-thru Nativity are somewhere around $800 to $1,000, but in 2020 it was $3,000, Flom said.
“It’s a beautiful thing, and we raise money for people who need it,” said Stella Zawodny, as she gathered around a table eating pizza with friends before the start of last week’s Nativity.
After donning their robes, headdresses and angel wings, the 30 students gathered in a circle as Chirico prayed to prepare them for the Nativity.
“Thank you for the opportunity to gift our community with the true meaning of Christmas, the birth of Jesus,” Chirico said. “We thank you for all of our families and the very supportive community. We thank you for this beautiful evening. Be with us and fill our hearts with goodness and joy as we are ready to go share the story of Jesus’ birth. And please bless the families that our donations will help.”
For Flom, seeing the joy that the drive-thru Nativity brings to the students, parents and visitors is worth the hard work that goes into it. Most of the vehicles coming through are filled with community members who come every year, calling it a Christmas tradition, she said.
“There’s just so much secular Christmas. For us to celebrate the true reason for the season and have our students so engaged in the true Christmas – that’s the biggest thing,” Flom said.