The first time Nathan Gallops performed in the live nativity, he was baby Jesus. ¶ As a boy he played a townsman selling fruit in Bethlehem. His father portrayed a Roman guard and helped set up the production. The two spent hours together building sets and rehearsing roles. ¶ At age 13, Gallops' father put him in charge of the animals. There were goats to feed and sheep to herd into the manger. Once, Gallops chased a bull running loose down Kings Avenue.
"I wasn't in charge of the animals that year," Gallops, now 22, said, taking a break from preparations for the 25th annual Walk Through Bethlehem at Kings Avenue Baptist Church.
Recalling the bull incident, his father, Dave Gallops, rolled his eyes and laughed.
"Our family might be a little goofy, but we have a great time doing this," he said.
For the Gallops family, Walk Through Bethlehem is a Christmas tradition worth the 70-plus hours they put into it each holiday. Last year, more than 7,200 people attended the walk. Even more are expected to pass through when it reopens on Thursday.
Guests meet Roman guards at the gate for a tour through a city featuring merchant tents and the famous inn that had no room to offer Mary and Joseph. From there, guests travel to the site of Christ's birth. Inside the church, people waiting in line take in live music, refreshments and entertainment.
"It's a free gift to the community," Dave Gallops said. "Typically, you think of a nativity sitting on a fireplace or a mantel. Here, you get to see it come to life."
Dave Gallops became part of the event 24 years ago when his aunt and uncle ran the show. He recruited his wife, Bonnie, to join. When the couple had Nathan, Bonnie starred as Mary with her newborn by her side. Soon little sister Ashley came along and took her turn as baby Jesus. In 2004, Dave Gallops took over as the production's director.
The Gallops lead a cast of 300 volunteers, a camel and a donkey. They start working in mid-November to get everything ready. Most of the items used for the event were donated years ago. It's just a matter of pulling things together when the time comes, Dave Gallops said.
The goal is to remind people of Christ during Christmas.
"If 10,000 come through this year and one or two come to know Christ, it's worth it to me," he said.
Nathan Gallops said he learns a lot watching his father lead. The two work together daily at their family-owned pest control business. While constructing the nativity, they butt heads sometimes but they always work it out. The Gallops men make sure everyone in line gets a tour, even it means staying at the church until midnight.
"My dad's taught me you don't do a half job," Nathan Gallops said. "If you're going to do something, you do it all the way."
Dave Gallops is confident his son will continue the Walk Through Bethlehem tradition in years to come. He imagines his future grandchildren taking turns as baby Jesus.
"This is what Christmas is about for us," he said.
Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.