By Dana Delgado
BURNET — The unequivocally captivating, living and breathing recreated biblical community that is Main Street Bethlehem in Burnet opens its rustic gates for the 21st year the first Friday in December.
Presented by the First Baptist Church of Burnet, the ancient city likeness of Christ’s birth comes to life for two consecutive weekends, Dec. 6-8 and Dec. 13-15, from 6-9 p.m. each evening. Admission is free but donations are welcome.
Located two blocks east of Burnet’s historic town square, Main Street Bethlehem bustles with the activities of over 100 costumed and in-character merchants, transients, craftsmen, bakers, shoppers and Roman soldiers amidst the presence of everyday animals of the time like camels, donkeys, sheep, goats, chickens and doves.
Visitors walk through the busy and narrow torch-lit open-air streets of Main Street Bethlehem immersed in all the stir, entering dim-lit shops and homes to get a glimpse of their activities and business and at-times interacting with its characters. Ancient music fills the air while the rich aromas of fresh bread and goat butter linger. The smoke and smell of various camp and cooking fires add to the reality of experience.
Following a trail through the village, visitors eventually come to a large cave. There, Joseph and Mary can be found, resting with their newborn babe.
Such a fulfilling experience, it has become a Christmas tradition for many. Some reportedly have visited every Main Street Bethlehem since its opening in 1993. Charter busses regularly ferry visitors from afar. The event attracts an average of 25,000 visitors every year. Last year, just over 29,000 visitors attended.
Norman Leftwich is credited with proposing the idea to First Baptist Church in Burnet. He had marveled at his son’s similar effort in El Paso.
His son, Scott Leftwich, was the music director at a church in east El Paso at the time. Having seen the traditional stand-alone nativity scenes, some with live animals and costumed characters and others with elaborate lighting and music, Scott considered a whole village.
He drew a design, built a scaled-down model and won approval for the project. Without a budget, however, Scott Leftwich reached out to everyone for help including the U.S. Army, which agreed to provide tents that would serve as structures of the village. It drew attention from the media and was featured on a local news station.
When the day came for the event with everything in place, El Paso recorded a record snowfall and the event was cancelled. The Army came and got the tents and the village that was to be, would never be rebuilt again at Scott Leftwich’s church. That particular church no longer exists.
His father, Norman, however, believed it would be a great idea for Burnet that could possibly prosper. After running it by his wife who was excited about the idea, Norman Leftwich approached others.
“I mentioned it to the Rotary Club, the Pastor, and all were excited,” Leftwich recalls. “Everybody said let’s do it. “
With that, Main Street Bethlehem was born.
The first year Bethlehem was primitive in construction but still drew 3,000 visitors. A sketch he made early on would be his guide over the years that has led to permanent structures with the help of countless people who contributed an immeasurable amount of support. Even prisoners from the city jail to whom Leftwich ministered, helped with the construction.
“We added a new building each year and tried to be architecturally correct,” he said. “By 1999, we completed all the inside structures. We now have 16 buildings on the compound surrounded by an eight-foot wall on the original site we started.”
A steady stream of long and detailed letters singing praises for Main Street Bethlehem are received by the organizers. The greatest praises are given to the authenticity of the structures and the characters who are always in character.
“It has grown beyond my wildest dreams,” said Norman Leftwich. “It is a yearlong effort that involves 150-250 people in preparing costumes, cast members, and maintenance but it has been very gratifying.”
Norman Leftwich and his wife, Frankie, participate regularly in Bethlehem. Norman is the character of a city elder and can usually be found near the entrance to Bethlehem while his wife is in the refreshment building.
Their son, Scott, is now the Pastor of the Chapel of the Hills Baptist Church at Buchanan Dam, and has at times, been a tax collector in Bethlehem. Grandson Jonathan Leftwich is the Lead Pastor at Plum Creek Fellowship in Kyle, and has initiated his own Bethlehem tradition in his church.
“I’ve just been doing God’s work,” said the senior Leftwich who is now 87 years old and owes a great deal to his faith.
Norman Leftwich was raised in Dallas before moving to a west Texas farm as a teen. He served in the Navy during World War II and moved to the area in the 1950’s. He spent 55 years in the insurance business and says he has always been very active in church life.
Main Street Bethlehem is presented as a Christmas gift to the State of Texas by the members and friends of the First Baptist Church of Burnet.
Know Before You Go:
Nearly 90 percent of the ancient city recreation is wheelchair accessible, but electric chairs are not recommended due to the terrain and crowds. Restrooms are available near the exit and in the adjacent First Baptist’s Family Life Center.
The lines are often long but they move quickly and are well worth the wait. Generally, Friday and Sunday night visitors experience a shorter waiting time than on Saturday night.