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Click for larger image • The nativity scene in the drive-thru Christmas outside the Christian Assembly Church in Durham, now in its sixth year

Photo by Derek Anderson

Click for larger image • The nativity scene in the drive-thru Christmas outside the Christian Assembly Church in Durham, now in its sixth year

Three years ago at Christian Assembly Church's "Drive-Thru Christmas," a young boy wanted to meet Jesus Christ so badly that he jumped out of his parents' car during the last scene and ran up to the actor portraying Jesus. He then joined the children onstage while Jesus hugged them in front of a mural of the solar system, representing the Christian eternal heaven.

Visitors to this bilingual church located in on the northern outskirts of Durham weave through a small parking lot along a route marked with Christmas lights, while Roxboro Road bustles in the background. Each year, an estimated 900 people visit "Drive-Thru Christmas," a partnership between Christian Assembly Church and its Spanish-speaking congregation, Iglesia Evangélica "Comunidades de Formación Cristiana," and the Greater Orange Grove Baptist Church located next door.

The production contains five simple sets from the nativity story, including a particularly inactive though visually enjoyable scene in which the Three Wise Men cower before a messenger angel (represented by light and the imagination). Nearby, a small (real) fire crackles and a painted lamb and politically conscious, if not racially diverse, angel cut-outs (there are five white angels and one black angel) fill in the background.

Actors pantomime their parts, while car passengers listen to Spanish or English narration on a CD or cassette tape distributed to each vehicle. The audio features readings from the Bible, a biographical summary of Jesus' life and work, and an invitation to join the church—all set to the tune of Renaissance-esque guitar and pop or gospel versions of Christmas songs.

After the fourth and final night, Dec. 15, actors reminisced inside the church about their yearly childhood visits to various Christmas tableaus, and agreed that Drive-Thru Christmas offers Durham a special holiday tradition for kids and parents. They discussed one adult patron who was stirred to tears by the last scene—the same one that inspired the young boy—of Jesus hugging children, staged with recordings of words from the Apostle John.

It takes a startlingly large crew of 85 to pull off this pageant each night, including two full sets of cast members (so that actors can switch places every 30 minutes), greeters, CD/tape distributors, costume handlers and managing personnel. According to Dub Karriker, Christian Assembly Church's pastor and the founder of the event, it took a few years to tweak the blocking and rhythm of the narrative. Karriker himself has played a shepherd and a wise man over the years.

The actors rehearse once together, when they learn to match the length of their scene to that of the recording—which they can't hear, except on warm nights when car windows are down. Many actors memorize their lines and say them to one other or count in their heads to perfect the timing.

Despite extensive planning, occasionally the scene continues while the actors stand awkwardly still, silently willing passengers to move their cars along and restore the performance's synchronicity. As if they're waiting, perhaps, for a desert star to descend over the little town of Bethlehem.

  • A visit to a drive-thru Christmas

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