As Christmas draws nearer, there are precious few days to get shopping done, finish up at work before vacation and make the most of the season. It's also the last chance to check out one local event that takes guests back to the year of Jesus' birth.
"Walk Through Bethlehem," put on by Hillcrest Seventh-day Adventist Church, will wrap up its monthlong weekend event with two final days of tours on Friday and Saturday. The tours transform the church campus into a long-ago Bethlehem, complete with marketplace vendors, a synagogue and the manger.
"What we want to do is reach out to all our friends and neighbors in Bakersfield and all of Kern County and (have them) come and enjoy a live-action journey through the very first Christmas," said Pastor Daniel Petsch. "We want everyone to experience the sights and sounds, and learn a little about the history and culture of the people of Jesus' day."
In the marketplace, there will be re-enactments of merchants selling baskets, bread, produce and fish, and there will also be a carpenter. Live animals — goats and sheep among them — will also play a role in the tour. At any given time, there are between 50 and 75 volunteers, from Hillcrest and other local Adventist churches, playing the cast of characters in the Bethlehem scene. At the end of the tour, guests go forward in time to meet an adult Jesus, who Petsch said looks just like the common representation.
The church has put on the annual tours for at least 12 years, Petsch said. Like many Christmas events around town, last year's rainy winter hurt attendance some, but the warmer and drier weather this month has been perfect for "Walk Through Bethlehem," he said.
Last weekend saw around 2,000 "tourists," enough to make the volunteers shorten the time between small groups, which they usually keep around five to six minutes. Petsch said he expects around 6,000 people to go through the tour at the end of the three-week event. He thinks this final weekend will once again get a strong turnout.
"The guides are ready," he said. "We're prepared this weekend for an influx of good friends and neighbors."
Many in attendance are coming as part of a Christmas tradition, attending every year and regularly checking with church leaders to make sure it will return the next.
"The kids are so excited and thrilled, and the moms and dads have raved about it," he said, adding that the tour has been a blessing both for the guests and the church. "We're making friends in Bakersfield, and that's what we love to do."
It takes a lot of work to transform the church campus into Bethlehem, and it all starts the day after Labor Day each year, Petsch said. The team of volunteers finished the week before the event kicked off on Dec. 8.
"We have such wonderful workers in our church," he said. "They love the Lord and they want to serve."
Petsch said the tour is great for both Christians and non-Christians alike.
"I really hope people will come to rekindle their first love. Christmas is all about our savior; I don't want people to lose sight of that. For people who don't know the story of Christmas, we want them to hear the good news."