SAMOSET -- Many Manatee and Sarasota residents officially start their Christmas season in early December by attending a event in Samoset that depicts what it was like on the night Jesus Christ as born, 2,000 years ago.
"Walk Through Bethlehem," presented by 130 volunteers from Samoset First Baptist Church and Southside Baptist Church, will be staged for the seventh year from 5 to 8:30 p.m. today and Sunday on the grounds of Samoset First Baptist, 3200 15th St. E.
The churches, which strive to recreate the sights, smells, and sounds of the Bethlehem of ancient times, expect large crowds to come to the free event about a half-mile southwest of U.S. 301.
One of those who kicks off her Christmas season with "Walk" is Lynn Tomczak, who is a member of nearby Oneco First Baptist Church.
"We've been going to the'Walk' for six years and our northern relatives from Maryland and Virginia all come down for it," Tomczak said. "Some friends and relatives have taken the idea back to their home churches. It's wonderful."
Tomczak has become so enamored of the event that she signed on this year to play her harp for those waiting to go on a guided tour.
Tammy Bass of Samoset First Baptist lay awake many nights in 2005, visualizing a Christmasevent where tour guides took small groups on a leisurely stroll through the ancient city of Christ's birth. She saw the groups passing through crowds of townspeople in period dress, including shopkeepers and shepherds.
She saw the tourists attending a synagogue service, being confronted by Roman soldiers and even having to pay tax.
She envisioned obscure corners of the town, including a place where a manger holds baby Jesus, portrayed by a real baby,
Some fellow church members told her the church didn't have enough manpower to put on such an event and even if it did, no one would come.
But Pastor Roland Davis of Samoset First Baptist stood by her.
"She put her heart into it," Davis said this week. "As we began it, you could feel God's anointing."
Many of the very same church members who doubted Bass now eagerly look forward to playing characters in the recreation.
"This is much bigger than any one individual," Bass said this week, "When I think about what we have been able to pull off, especially that first year, it still blows my mind. It has to be God."
The event has grown to the point where Rabbi Dennis Bacon of Temple Beth Israel on Longboat Key holds an actual service for the tourists in a recreated synagogue during the event. A candle shop has been added this year, Bass said.
Each tour takes about 35 minutes, which includes wait time, Bass said.
Everyone registered by 8:30 p.m. is guaranteed to go on a tour, weather permitting, Bass added.
The event has gotten too big for either church to do alone.
"The real heroes are the volunteers from both churches, including those who work on costumes and start the construction a month before we open," Bass said. "We have walls that must be put up and shops that have to be created."
After each tour, guests are served cookies, hot chocolate and candy canes.
"I know He has called us to do this work of telling His story," Bass said. "We already see evidence that He is pleased through the reaction of our guests and the lives that have been changed."
Volunteers say an off-duty police officer working at the event became a Christian one night after seeing a tour.
So, what's the hardest thing for the volunteers?
"Remembering to leave our cell phones in the car," said volunteer Jean Adams.
"And no red plastic cups," added Linda Swinson.