Two years ago, East County 16-year-old Rachel Walmsley was preparing to fly through the air on a zip line to practice for her big moment as a flying angel at the Tabernacle Church’s annual living nativity.
She had been waiting years to be the right height and weight to take on the role, which is the dream for almost every girl who participates in the living nativity.
Walmsley pushed herself off the 45-foot-tall structure the first time and made her way down the zip line. She remembered screaming the entire way down.
“When I went down the second time, I think all the adrenaline helped me out,” Walmsley said. “It was just really fun. It was high up in the air. … You get to look down at all the people.”
Participating in the Tabernacle Church’s living nativity has been a family tradition for the Walmsleys.
The family will continue the tradition during this year’s living nativity at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 14-17.
Michelle Walmsley, Rachel’s mother, has been participating in the nativity since she was in middle school.
She remembered one of her first times in the living nativity when a camel bit her friend’s shirt.
Now at 45, Michelle and her family look forward to the living nativity every holiday season.
“It’s a part of our Christmas,” Michelle said. “It wouldn’t be Christmas without having the nativity. It’s a time where we put our focus on the true meaning of Christmas and take a break from the crazy hustle and bustle. I love being a part of it and sharing that with our community. I treasure the time that we spend as a family putting this on.”
From their roles to the live animals to drinking hot chocolate together, the family says every aspect of the living nativity puts them in the holiday spirit.
Each performance has its own memorable moments, such as Rachel’s debut as a flying angel.
Michelle recalled a meteor shower taking place during one of the performance's just as baby Jesus was being lifted into the air. Those who attended remember the spotlight on the baby, with shooting stars crossing the sky in the background. Michelle said “it was just beautiful.”
The nativity in 2021 was Abigail Walmsley’s debut as a wise man’s attendant, which is a bigger role than any she’s previously played. Abigail, who now is 12, was tasked with walking around the camels and being present with the wise men as they were providing gifts to Jesus.
“It was fun doing something other than being an angel,” Abigail said.
Michelle tries to stay out of the limelight. She played Mary once before her children were born, and after one performance, she knew it wasn’t for her.
“As a young girl growing up in the church, you always dream of having that role, but a lot of times you’re the only one in front of all those people,” Michelle said. “It was really nerve-wracking. I realized I don’t need to be in the spotlight.”
Since then, Michelle has taken on roles that are less high profile.
Michelle’s children, Benjamin, who is now 20; Nathan, who is now 18; and Rachel, all have played baby Jesus just after they were born.
“It’s such an honor,” Michelle said. “It can only happen once, so we really enjoyed that. Seeing our babies in the arms of Mary was great. Someday, maybe my daughters will be Mary and carry baby Jesus.”
“Or maybe baby Jesus will be one of our grandchildren,” added Eric Walmsley, Michelle’s husband.
Rachel would like to be Mary some day, but Abigail has her eyes set on being a flying angel.
This year, Rachel will be not only a flying angel one night but also Joseph’s angel another night while Abigail will be one of the top angels.
No matter the role, the living nativity for the Walmsley’s is about sharing the true meaning of Christmas.
“We use this opportunity to come together as a family and look for ways to project our faith loudly,” Eric said. “Whether or not it’s baby Jesus, a wise man’s attendant, or even just a parking attendant, it’s something that we want to lift up in the name of Jesus.”
Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.