Bethlehem village transforms speedway

Dave Hix, dressed in an ancient-looking biblical-style robe, stands underneath a dozen television sets hanging from the ceiling of Charlotte Motor Speedway's media center.

Gradually, a mix of people begin to filter in and join him. A teenager with a Justin Bieber haircut walks in while texting. A woman snapping small bubbles with her chewing gum follows a minute later.

As the room swells to 25, the crowd quickly begins to cover any traces of 21st century clothing with fashions from biblical times. Little by little, any habits that would give away the modern era cease.

And just when all proof of the present day seems gone, a familiar ring from Hix's robe pocket rushes it right back in.

It's not easy turning back the clock more than 2,000 years, but that's what Hix, a pastor at Covenant Church of Harrisburg and member of a co-op homeschooling partnership called Scholars of Grace, has done every Thursday night in Carolina Christmas' Bethlehem Village.

The event, which began in November and runs through Jan. 2, portrays Bethlehem at the time of Christ's birth. From 6 to 10 p.m. the infield of the track is transformed into a village bustling with peddlers, shepherds, guards and, of course, a manger sheltering Joseph, Mary and a baby Jesus. Outside, a drive-through Christmas light show swirls around the speedway.

It's unique to have a live Nativity in the middle of a race track, and not just for the obvious reasons.

It's actually easy to forget the village is in the center of a setting usually surrounded by thousands of cheering spectators, all breathing in the smell of burnt rubber. The village, with its straw floor, live animals, realistic fires and peddlers, is very convincing.

What is so unusual to Sherry Allman, 49, who portrays one of the villagers, is the blend of people who come through the made-up Bethlehem.

"When you have a Nativity at a church, you're typically getting Christian people who already know the story," said Allman. "When you have it somewhere in a venue like this, people are not coming here to see the Nativity scene. They are coming hear to see the other stuff, and they just happen to see the Nativity."

Allman has been surprised not only by the number of people who ask questions, but by the number of people who seem to be hearing the story of Jesus' birth for the first time.

For others who already know the story, a reminder of the true meaning of Christmas never hurts. "I have kids who have been brought up in a society where it's about gifts," said Christine Kirby, 36, who plays the innkeeper in Bethlehem.

It's why she rushes home from her job as a tutor each Thursday, grabs a quick bite to eat and stands for hours in the record low temperatures at the track.

She gives her daughter, Bailey, 15, who plays Mary, some gentle guidance for her role.

"They're not taking a picture of you," Kirby reminds her. "They're taking a picture of Mary. Don't necessarily smile like you're in a pageant. Look down at Jesus and adore him."

A worthy reminder for modern times of the significance of the holiday.