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Spending Christmas in Bethlehem

Church's re-enactment becoming local tradition

Dec. 1, 2009

For the first time since 2006, Bethlehem is coming back to Brookfield.

Elmbrook Church next week will open its Bethlehem Marketplace, a small-scale re-creation of the city as it was at the time of Christ's birth - a re-creation that requires the work of hundreds of volunteers and nearly a year of preparation.

Marketplace started in 1988

Elmbrook held its first marketplace in 1988, and the event has since expanded in size and popularity. For 10 days in December, the megachurch's gymnasium is populated with volunteers and visitors, each taking in the church's re-enactment of life 2,000 years ago.

During 40- to 50-minute sessions, visitors walk through the gym experiencing the sights and sounds of old Bethlehem, from camels and goats to merchants peddling jewelry, spices and other wares.

It takes more than 200 volunteers performing all kinds of tasks to put on the marketplace. There's hard labor involved, including putting together the sets that form the re-created Bethlehem, and there are interactive roles, such as portraying the innkeepers, Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus, said Jan Keddie, worship coordinator at Elmbrook.

Bethlehem Marketplace isn't necessarily on a fixed schedule, Keddie said, but the last three sessions have been held on a three-year cycle. About 40,000 people come to the marketplace each time it's held.

"A lot of families say they've made it part of their Christmas tradition because it really brings the focus to what Christmas is all about," Keddie said.

Booths are hands-on

Shelley Mathison, who oversees the herbs and spices booth, has been a longtime participant and said it is a perfect fit for her.

"I love doing it," she said. Mathison grew some of the herbs she displays; a cadre of volunteers harvested the rest.

Mathison's booth is a hands-on experience. Kids who visit can grind salt or help make ointments, and each visitor gets a sample of frankincense and myrrh before moving on through the marketplace.

Bethlehem Marketplace is great because it is a "nonthreatening kind of an outreach to people," she said.

"(Visitors) are so interested in the whole experience, and they're sort of wide-eyed," she said. "(The volunteers) get into it, so the people who come by are usually very curious."

Volunteers keep coming back

David and Ingrid Popp were hooked after they participated in the last Bethlehem Marketplace three years ago. The Popps portrayed the innkeeper and his wife, and this year they are in charge of coordinating all the volunteers who work at the inn.

Ingrid, who said she and her husband plan to continue to participate in the marketplace whenever it returns to Brookfield, said she likes being able to "offer something to neighbors and people I know that's meaningful for their Christmas holiday.

"It's not just getting a present," she said. "It's an experience."

AT A GLANCE

WHAT: Bethlehem Marketplace

WHERE: Elmbrook Church, 777 S. Barker Road

WHEN: 5 to 8:15 p.m. Dec. 10-11 and Dec. 17-18; 10 a.m. to 8:15 p.m. Dec. 12 and 19; 1:15 to 8 p.m. Dec. 13 and 20; Bethlehem Marketplace is open to seniors and people with special needs 11:30 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. Dec. 18

ADMISSION: $3; tickets must be purchased online at elmbrook.org

ETC.: Wheelchair accessible

CONTACT: church hotline, (262) 796-5730

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