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'Journey to Bethlehem' on tap
Ceres officially gets into the Christmas mode this weekend with two public events, one of which opens the traditional Christmas Tree Lane.

This week also kicks off the very popular annual Journey to Bethlehem experience hosted at the rural Grace Community Christian Church campus. The event starts Thursday night and is offered again on Friday and Saturday as well as Dec. 13, 14, and 15. The gates will open on Thursday and Friday nights at 7 p.m. and close at 9 p.m. They will open on Saturday nights at 6 p.m. and close at 9 p.m.

Grace is located at 3754 E. Service Road east of Mitchell Road and parking is available onsite as well as at the Orchard Park Shopping Center on Mitchell Road with a free shuttle service available.

"Journey to Bethlehem" is a guided live walking tour from Nazareth to Bethlehem intended to recreate the journey taken by Mary and Joseph in the biblical account of the Christ child's birth. Along the way travelers will visit with the Wise Men, deal with harassing Roman soldiers, talk with shepherds, encounter thieves, stop by the inn, and kneel at the manger. They will also experience sights of Middle Eastern Life, sounds of the village market place, and smells of spices and authentic food.

This is a free gift to the community and everyone is welcome.

Typically the event goes on as long as it's not storm and rainy, said church secretary DeLinda Moore.

"We have done it in a light drizzle but when it's raining we usually call it off," said Moore.

She's hoping for fog, actually.

"We like it when it's foggy. It makes it more exciting. The fog means you can't see from set to set. And you can hear the horses coming but you can't see them until they're right on top of you. It just kind of adds to it."

Approximately 200 persons both inside and outside the church are required to pull off Journey. Moore said besides the cast, people are working behind the scenes with parking, set decoration, directing foot traffic, feeding and caring of the camel, llamas, goats, horses and geese, bringing food to the actors, and take care of sound effects, like the chirping crickets and croaking frogs at the manmade Jordan River.

"I think it gets better with time," said Moore. "We add little things, like our tax collectors tent is now really ornate and then first year it wasn't. Like the wisemen's set. They accent it every year and make it better."

The show has been known to attract people who drive from as far away as Sacramento, Fresno, Lodi and Sonora, said Moore. Opening night tends to be the slowest night, which is one way to await the wait other nights, which can be as long as three hours. Moore said that some people start lining up at 4:30 p.m. even though gates open at 7 p.m. weekdays.

The line is shut down with the closing of the gate at 9 p.m.

"If you're in line at 9 p.m. then you're in."

Seeing Journey for the first time this year will be Grace Community Christian Church's new pastor, Steve LaFarge. Earlier this year he was tapped to replace retiring pastor Wayne Unger who started Journey with his wife Sue.

Tree Lighting event

On Friday the Ceres Garden Club will host a small ceremony to light up the Christmas Tree in Whitmore Park. Entertainment will be provided by a group of ambassadors from YES Company. Santa Claus will make an appearance and hot drinks and cookies will be served. Entertainment begins at 5:45 p.m. with the lighting of the tree at 6 p.m.

Festival on Saturday

Saturday evening brings the 21st annual Christmas Festival at Smyrna Park. The city of Ceres Recreation Department will be hosting the free community festival from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Mayor Anthony Cannella will emcee the event, which features entertainment from local groups, including Edward's Black Belt Academy, Steps Dance Art Center, Footnotes Dance Studio, and bands from the junior high and high schools. Jim Barton of Ceres will lead the singing of traditional Christmas carols.

Refreshments will be handed out by members of the Ceres Senior Citizens Club.

There will be plenty of things for kids to do at the festival. A Santa's Village will be set up in the parking lot next to the covered picnic shelter area to provide craft making, the writing of letters to Santa, a Sweet Shoppe, and pictures with Santa and Mrs. Claus for $2. Photos will be printed on the spot, said Traci Dayton Farris, a recreation official with the city. She noted that members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Ladies Auxiliary will be on hand to help with photos with the celebrated North Pole couple.

Horse-drawn wagon rides will be provided for the crowd on a first-come, first-served basis.

"Everything's free except for the pictures with Santa," said Farris.

At 7:45 p.m. the official ribbon to nearby Christmas Tree Lane will be cut.

Each year the residents along Henry and Vaughn near the park post their yards with lights and other decorations for the impressive Christmas Tree Lane, a tradition since 1961.

Vehicular traffic on the lane will be banned for the night to enable the public a chance to check out the sight without fear of being struck.

For more information on the festival, call Farris at 538-5682.