In the early morning of Dec. 25, 2020, still dark and with snow on the ground, a small group of people gathered in front of Yarrow United Mennonite Church to re-enact the first Christmas.
This was the sixth time for “Meet You at the Manger,” an early-morning Christmas service designed and led by Heidi Epp and involving her family members and a few friends as readers and actors. Usually the event takes place at the Epp farm near Chilliwack with an audience attending, but this year, due to the pandemic, participants gathered at the Yarrow church building, where a manger was already set up in front.
An early morning Christmas come-as-you-are service for Epp began a decade ago when she was attending Peace Mennonite Church in Richmond. She says she felt inspired to plan something when she realized the church building first thing on Christmas was “the darkest place on the lot in the community,” and she envisioned a place for the whole family to gather to begin this special holiday.
“I got to the point where I felt the Christmas story is not about a picture-perfect story; nothing is convenient in the story. I felt like ‘you need to shake up your Christmas,’” she recalls. She believed God was giving her a vision to invite people to come at 7 a.m.—admittedly an inconvenient time—to be “unsettled in their convenience, outside the box,” to hear the story of Jesus’ birth.
Epp invited church members to come as they were, in pajamas if they wished, to hear the Christmas story because, as she puts it, “The first thing should be unwrapping the actual gift of Christmas. People need to come in the dark and leave in the light.”
The first year Peace Mennonite tried it, in 2011, a hundred people came, and the event became a favourite. Strangers off the street also came to join them.
When her family relocated to a farm in Chilliwack some years ago, Epp was inspired to continue the Christmas sunrise service in a new format. Her neighbours had sheep, so an outdoor service using animals seemed a natural fit.
This year was different, with fewer people and no animals, but the event was livestreamed and enjoyed across Canada.
Each year, Epp writes original monologues for her actors to read, and she tries to address current events in the world. This year, the characters included Mary talking about the masks people wear, a shepherd reflecting on the value of all lives, and the innkeeper addressing social distancing.
Next year, Epp hopes to be back in the natural, rural setting, and she hopes to continue livestreaming the service.
“There’s so much in the Christmas story; that’s why it’s important to have it speak to us,” she says.
Do you have a story idea about Mennonites in B.C.? Send it to Amy Rinner Waddell at firstname.lastname@example.org.