SALT LAKE CITY — Sixteen years ago, Esty Larsen’s grandma Irene Hayes was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was told she only had three months to live.
After her passing a year later, Esty Larsen and her mother, Alison Larsen, started brainstorming ways they could honor their late grandmother and mother. They thought about running a 5K in her name or having a bake sale, but that didn’t seem like enough.
“(One night, my mom) had a dream that (we) put on a play about the Nativity, about Christ’s birth. So the next morning, we started talking about it and decided to put on a live Nativity in a local barn,” Esty Larsen told the Deseret News.
With that, the Alpine Living Nativity was born.
What started out as 15 volunteers, 300 visitors and not even $2,000 raised has evolved into nearly 25,000 annual visitors and last year alone, the Nativity raised $75,000, which was all donated to charity.
The Nativity is run almost entirely by the Larsen family, with the help of a family friend, who donates his property in Alpine to host the Nativity every year. Esty Larsen served as the head coordinator this year, organizing the volunteers and ensuring that everything ran smoothly — and still found time to enjoy the experience.
“I think my favorite part is the time of year that we do it — it’s always the first weekend in December, so it sets off the Christmas season with the right spirit in mind,” Larsen said.
“(During) the manger scene, lots of times little children will ask their mom, 'Mommy, why do we go see Santa Claus every year but this is the first year we’ve come to see Jesus?’" she said. "It’s such a reminder that the Christmas season really is about the Savior and helping others … and the money used to purchase tickets goes to charities all around.”
Larsen started acting in the Nativity when she was 8-years-old doing everything from making pots to standing by the animals (which include sheep, goats, chickens, camels and alpacas) to being a shepherd's daughter.
“One of my favorite positions is standing by the donkey and sharing the significance behind it — every donkey on its back has a darker patch of fur shaped in a cross going down its spine and over its shoulder blades," Larsen said. "(According to legend, donkeys) have that because Christ rode a donkey his last time into Jerusalem before his crucifixion, so now each donkey has a cross on its back to remind us of Jesus Christ.”
Due to the thousands of visitors every night, this year, the Alpine Living Nativity offered a private showing for visitors to enjoy a more intimate experience, which Larsen was especially excited about.
“There’s a few areas to sit at in the manger scene," she said, " … where people can reflect on Jesus Christ and all the many things he’s done for us and (remember) his humble beginnings and how he came into this world. (It) teaches us such an (important) lesson.”
A new Nativity
Though the Alpine Living Nativity has dominated Utah Country for many years, The Orchard at University Place in Orem decided they wanted to begin another Nativity tradition in Utah Valley.
Started in 2016, the University Place Live Nativity has been gaining traction since.
“We heard a lot of people commenting, ‘Where else is there a live Nativity?’ So we decided we should have one here at University Place," Cindy Nguyen, Nativity organizer at University Place, told the Deseret News. " … It’s a different type of Christmas spirit and mood; … it’ll be a tradition during the holidays for sure.”
While people are still spreading the word about another live Nativity in Utah County, University Place has been able to involve the wider community.
“It’s definitely been really popular, and we have church groups, senior groups, etc. (involved). People are catching on,” Nguyen said. “It’s an opportunity to just put aside all the craziness … and a time to really experience and know what the meaning of Christmas is about.”
This year’s Nativity is held at The Orchard at University Place (575 E. University Parkway, Orem), an open, green space area on the north side of the mall on Friday, Dec. 7. It will include missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints handing out free hot chocolate to visitors, as well as students from the church's Institute of Religion at Utah Valley University acting out the Nativity.
Tyler Harper, president of the UVU Institute, was thrilled when he got the call from University Place asking if they wanted to be involved in the live Nativity.
“I said, ‘Absolutely!’ We’ll be having Mary, Joseph, three Wise Men and three shepherds,” Harper told the Deseret News.
“I (reached out) to Hale Center Theater Orem and they were generous enough to donate the costumes for the Nativity. … I’ve personally hand-picked people (to play the characters), and we have each of them reading the scene in the Bible so they can get familiar with their characters.”
Thanks to Harper’s devoted and enthusiastic effort, this live Nativity is ready to make its own mark on the Utah Valley community.
“It’s kind of a unique experience where you get to stand almost as proxy as Mary and Joseph," Harper said. " … I can’t wait for the event. There’s going to be a special spirit there.
“There’s going to be choirs, missionaries and hot chocolate — it’s going to be awesome. I’ve very excited.”
A storied Salt Lake tradition
Whether or not you’re a Salt Lake native, there’s a high likelihood that you’ve either been to or heard about the Nativity in the Glen, located in the east-bench area of Salt Lake City.
According to Cassia Nielsen, this year’s co-chair, the Bonneville Glen Nativity, located at 1050 S. 1500 East, had humble beginnings.
“I think it started (about 15 years ago) … where everybody brought their own little Nativities to the LDS church right by the glen. … It might have been like a Christmas party and everybody brought their Nativites and they decorated the inside of the church like a Bethlehem,” Nielsen told the Deseret News. “And then as they cleared the glen across the street to have more access, they decided to take it down there and convert that into a little Bethlehem.”
The landscape is a big reason why this Nativity is so unique. Upon entering the glen, visitors walk down a dirt path where they land in the center of a bustling village area meant to replicate Bethlehem, filled with tents, chickens, pottery stations, baskets, donkeys, sheep, goats and, of course, a camel.
Before Dan Nielsen became the co-chair with his wife Cassia Nielsen, he remembered the feeling of walking through as a patron, something he still gets emotional about.
“There’s always such a hustle and bustle in the village, (but) then you wind down by a river on a path and suddenly it becomes really quiet," Dan Nielsen told the Deseret News. " … When you see the manger scene, it’s really impactful. … There is something different about seeing it live that really changes your attitude about Christmas. … You just have to experience it to know how it feels.”
Cassia Nielsen explained that the way they find Nativity actors is by searching out who in the neighborhood had a baby within the last three months and then those families play Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus for one hour shifts.
Although Dan Nielsen has never played Joseph, he got the opportunity a few years ago to play a shepherd, a role that he has come to cherish.
“At the time, I went back and read the story in Luke and I realized something that I never realized: A lot of the story revolves around the shepherds and their point of view,” Dan Nielsen said.
“It starts with a story of shepherds. … They were asked to actually do something: go and find the babe and (serve as a) witness (of Christ.) … It just opened my eyes that what the shepherds were experiencing is what we are supposed to be experiencing," he said. "We are asked to come and find him and witness and make those things known. … It's my job to act as the shepherds would have.”
Since become co-chairs, the Nielsens have spent the last six months brainstorming ways to maximize the experience of each individual and simplifying the process. Because the Nativity had almost 8,000 people come last year, the Nielsens wanted to increase the stillness and sacredness of the manger scene and this year, for the one-night only event held on Friday, Dec. 7, one way they thought to increase the focus on Christ was having an angel right by the manger.
“We came up with the idea that we would have the angel dressed in her white gown, but she would be wearing a cloak," Dan Nielsen said. " … When (the story) talks about the angels appearing, she would walk down right next to where the manger is, (drop her cloak) and we have this really bright white light … shooting up into the air and then suddenly she just becomes brilliant because the light is shining on her.”
He acknowledged that just coming up with the idea of a shining angel felt like inspiration from an actual angel.
"That's just another small little miracle that happened with this Nativity. It's such a huge undertaking but it always comes together," he said.
Cassia Nielsen agreed.
"It’s just one night to put aside (the commercialism) and focus back on what the real meaning of Christmas is and remember why we celebrate (it)," she said. "That’s what we’re trying to create for people (with) this little Bethlehem."