The traditional Christmas story has changed little in 2,000 years. But for some, the holiday can suddenly take on a different hue.
A new mother who can now identify with Mary. A pilgrim who finally visits Bethlehem. A retiree who taps his hobby to enhance his church’s (mostly) live Nativity.
Call them Christmas connections.
On this Christian holy day, when more than 2 billion believers around the world celebrate God’s gift of an infant who would grow up to be a savior, here are three Charlotte-area people who are experiencing Christmas in new ways.
Expecting a boy
When Sara Miller imagines that first Christmas, her mind’s eye lingers on the young mother Mary, housed in a stable, holds her just-born baby boy and ponders his future in her heart.
Miller, 33, has also been filled with those new-mom feelings of hope and worry and joy.
Two Christmases ago, she was pregnant with daughter Sophie. And this Christmas, she is again with child – a boy this time, due in May.
Like Mary, she wonders on this holiday what her son’s life will be like: “What impact is he going to have? And what is God bringing him into the world to do?”
She still asks herself the same questions about Sophie.
Born in Greenville, N.C., Miller grew up celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday, and she now works as creative director of adult discipleship at Charlotte’s Forest Hill Church.
But becoming a mother, with one child at home and another on the way, has given her fresh perspectives on Christmas. For starters, she has a richer appreciation of Mary’s part in the Christmas story – and in the raising of Jesus.
“I think she really understood the blessing of who Jesus was and that God had chosen her,” Miller says.
In a similar but less earth-shaking way, Miller says, God entrusted her and husband, Erick with Sophie and, in six more months, will give them the gift – and responsibility – of a son.
Miller’s first pregnancy ended in miscarriage, in May 2011. But the following May, Sophie was born. For her middle name, Miller and her husband chose Joy.
Sophie’s brother is scheduled to arrive on her next birthday.
Now 19 months old, Sophie “definitely knows there’s a baby in my tummy,” says Miller. “She likes to give him a kiss at night. And she sings to him.”
In the days leading up to Christmas, Sophie sprang from her bed most mornings, shouting “Tree, tree” – her way of asking her parents to plug in the Christmas tree. Then she’d find and point to her ornament, the one with “S” for Sophie.
But Miller, a former retail store employee who saw firsthand how commercial Christmas can get, is striving, like Mary with Jesus, to raise her child with faith in God, not possessions.
“We’re trying really hard to convey that Christmas is not about giving people lots of stuff,” Miller says. “It’s about Jesus loving us and us loving each other.”
So on Christmas Day, Sophie will get just three gifts – just like Jesus.
Where she’ll be Christmas Day: At home in Charlotte with Erick and Sophie, busy “starting some of our own family Christmas traditions.” Later in the day, they’ll be joined by parents and siblings for a family dinner.
‘Prince of Peace’
“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.”
Thus begins one of the most beloved Christmas hymns. And one of the most hopeful: In its final verse, this lullaby to the hilltop town near Jerusalem where the Bible says Jesus was born calls God “our king” and wishes “peace to men on earth.”
So Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown, a Charlotte physician and ordained Baptist minister, was excited in March when the tour bus carrying members of Myers Park Baptist Church and Temple Beth El headed for Bethlehem.
What she saw and felt that day has filled Garmon-Brown with a sense of urgency this Christmas. The real Bethlehem, she says, left her with a hunger to do more to promote peace and serve the most vulnerable.
To get into Bethlehem, the interfaith tour bus had to pass through a security barrier – part concrete, part steel – separating Israel from the Palestinian West Bank.
She still remembers the tension. “I’m getting ready to go to a place where the Messiah for me was born, and in that place now there is so much pain, there is so much exclusion,” says Garmon-Brown, 59, a senior vice president at Novant Health. “Prince of Peace? Peace seems so far from there.”
One of the group’s first stops: The Church of the Nativity, the oldest operating church in the Holy Land, a basilica commissioned by Roman Emperor Constantine and his mother, Helena, in 327 and rebuilt in the sixth century.
There, Garmon-Brown got another jolt: The church, a guide told the group, was built atop the cave that several ancient sources identify as the birthplace of Jesus.
The Scriptures and Christmas carols had surely taught Garmon-Brown that Jesus had come from humble beginnings, far below those of any king. But a dark, smelly cave?
Jesus’ dire poverty at birth, she says, has convinced her that “I’ve got to do more for those who are on the margins of life. I’ve got to focus more on those who were born just like Jesus was born… What he talked about all the time was taking care of ‘the least of these’ – well, the way he came into the world was the ultimate in the least of these.”
The other lesson from modern Bethlehem this Christmas?
“Those of us who are Christians spend a lot of time separating ourselves – from Jews, from Muslims, from Hindus,” says Garmon-Brown. “It is my belief that Jesus came here to bring us together.”
Where she’ll be Christmas Day: In Fredericksburg, Va., playing with her grandchildren – Ezekiel, 6; Elaya, 20 months; and Emmanuel, 7 months. “You know what Emmanuel means? God with us,” says Garmon-Brown. “So, on Christmas, we have this beautiful child.”
To the rescue
Last Christmas, The Grove Presbyterian Church in east Charlotte had real donkeys in its outdoor Nativity drama.
But this year, it couldn’t find any. So Bobby Fisher, one of the church’s members, came to the rescue – again.
By the middle of last week, when the story of Jesus’ birth was again re-enacted on the sprawling church grounds, two plywood donkeys that looked like the real thing stood in the stable with the church members playing Mary and Joseph.
For the plainspoken Fisher, who was in the audience, Christmas has become a time to use his hands and his talent to help others celebrate the coming of Christ.
“I like to see the expression on their face, the joy and, especially with the kids, the awe,” says the 71-year-old woodworking whiz. “It just makes me feel like a good person.”
For years, Fisher stayed away from church. A little over three years ago, his wife, Peggy, finally talked him into trying The Grove. “Once I started back,” he says, “I fell in love with it and have never stopped.”
Also co-starring in last week’s Nativity production were other wooden animals that Fisher has measured and sawed into shape since he joined the church.
There were the three “camels,” which served as colorful props for the three wise men.
And, all told, the costumed shepherds tended 21 “sheep.” All of them were white, except one – the black sheep in the flock.
Fisher, the son of cotton mill workers, grew up in Concord and spent his pre-retirement years installing duct work for J.L. Patterson, a Charlotte heating and air conditioning company. But his love, as he discovered in high school, was woodworking.
“It’s one of the better things I can do,” he says.
For his church animals, Fisher uses marine plywood, which is waterproof.
The camels are 6 feet tall, and each took Fisher about three days in a friend’s shop. Then he worked with fellow church member Arden Smith, who does the painting, to get the camel’s eyelashes just right. Fisher even fashioned a dead ringer for a camel’s tail out of rope he found and started playing with in his garage.
To get the donkeys right, he consulted an encyclopedia, which said most were 27 inches from the ground to the shoulder. He turned out the donkeys – one eating hay, the other just surveying the scene – in a day.
“Bobby, the new additions look good,” longtime church member Libba Hicks told Fisher after last Wednesday night’s show. “I think they’re wonderful.”
Fisher also got a job-well-done from his wife of 30 years. Peggy is just as involved in the church’s annual Nativity project: She makes costumes for the shepherds, the angels and the wise men.
“I’m very proud of him,” she says of Fisher, who smiles sheepishly at her words.
When it’s Christmastime, he’s content knowing that his holiday handiwork has brought some extra cheer to someone’s day.
“I like to see people happy,” Fisher says. “That’s what makes my life great.”
Where he’ll be Christmas Day: He and Peggy will start the morning opening presents. “Just me and her,” he says. Then, before long, their grown kids and growing grandkids will start showing up at the Fishers’ Charlotte home.
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