Little Wyoming town recreates Bethlehem experience to big Christmas crowds

Dec 12, 2023, 9:23 PM | Updated: 9:31 pm

AFTON, Wyoming — People in a small Wyoming community put on a different kind of Christmas display: a recreation of the little town of Bethlehem. The effort drew large crowds while uniting different faiths to share the true meaning of the holiday.

Visitors were likely to see things like a wedding party, recreated by volunteers, like Lance Oviatt, doing their best to help people experience what Bethlehem might have been like.

The project involved approximately 700 people, building sets, creating lighting and many actors filling roles in shifts. It was all organized by members of the Afton and Thayne, Wyoming stakes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“A lot of people have put a lot of time and sacrifice into making this happen,” Oviatt said. He serves as the communication council director in the Afton Stake.

“It just seems like we live in a day and age where there is a lot of commercial options to celebrate Christmas,” said Jeff England. “And we just had a desire, several of us in the community, to get together and do something that would just be a little bit different.”

So they did, recruiting the help of other churches in the area. Like Jennifer Desrochers and her husband Mike Desrochers, from the Holy Family Catholic Church in Thayne, showing people how olive oil was made.”

There was quite a lot of snow on opening night but the Journey Through Bethlehem ran this year from Dec. 8 – 12 at the Lincoln County Fairgrounds, in its second year. In the first year, the display drew over 5,500 people, enough that a free ticketing system had to be added this year. While many came from the surrounding area, Afton itself only has approximately 2,200 people as of the last census.

We had planned for 3,000 and we were really worried we wouldn’t have enough supplies, and we were going to have to tell people, ‘Hey, Bethlehem’s crowded and we’re sorry.'”

But they didn’t. The group of volunteers pulled it off and added a fifth day for 2023. But the hustle and the energy of the town are just one piece of the free holiday exhibit. When visitors are ready, they can pass through the inn and into the stables, stocked with real animals and then move on to the quiet night sky, wisemen and of course, the manger.

“That’s what we’re hoping to accomplish with this,” England said. “Is that when people come through it connects in an emotional way.”

In the manger people can reflect quietly — as well in the final room with a Christus statue. Many are returning after experiencing it last year.

“It’s just a good night to come and remember the reason for Christmas,” Josh England said.

All of this shows, in a big way, that Christmas is what you make it with people in Afton united in a vision for that important day.

“It doesn’t matter what denomination or what church we happen to attend,” Oviatt said. “We have that common belief in our savior, Jesus Christ, and wanting to celebrate Christmas together.”

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Little Wyoming town recreates Bethlehem experience to big Christmas crowds