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Birthday for Christ: Bethel Park’s Christmas tradition since 1956

Birthday for Christ: Bethel Park’s Christmas tradition since 1956
Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS

By Jessica Brodie

DENMARK—In 1956, Bethel Park United Methodist Church came up with a theory: if Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, then Christians should treat it as such.

And so, spearheaded by the late Florence Fogle, Bethel Park implemented what has been an annual tradition for nearly sixty years at the small rural church: Birthday for Christ.

Held the second Sunday of every December, Birthday for Christ is never exactly the same. Sometimes it’s a living nativity scene. Sometimes there’s a giant birthday cake with candles, and a choir singing. Sometimes it’s elaborate. One year there was just a slideshow.

But year after year, on that Sunday afternoon, members of Bethel Park and the surrounding community have gathered at the church to fete the birth of their Savior and enjoy true Christian fellowship.

John Fogle, Florence’s son, recalled how the event always made his mother happy.

“She got an idea after reading an article in the Methodist Advocate, and it started her thinking, ‘Maybe we could have a birthday for Christ,’” Fogle said. “Back then, there were lots of Baby Boomers and lots of children in the church, and my sister was the very first Mary and Terry Poole was the very first Joseph in a living nativity scene.”

Fogle himself has been everything from a shepherd to a wise man to Joseph, and has even coordinated the party, which is passed from member to member each year. He coordinated it last year, kept it very simple—a nativity and a choir sing. This year, Gwen Lee and Dana Stokes directed it, giving it their own twist.

“Back then, Mom put it on for four or five years, and it was a standard thing each year, and then other people were doing it and doing their own little birthday for Christ,” Fogle said. “At end of the service, someone would call out a month and that was whatever month your birthday happened to be in, and you would go up and put your offering in. There was just a manger with no baby in it, and you’d put your offering in the manger, like giving a gift to Jesus.”

Fogle said in the early years, his father made the manger and filled it with hay, but people would put their change in and money would go right through the hay. So the next year his father put a burlap bag underneath so the money wouldn’t just go through.

Fogle said his mom would be proud to see the tradition she started 58 years ago continuing today.

“I think it’s a way of honoring the birth of Christ and holding that memory and reminding everyone about Him,” Fogle said.

Sometimes, Christmas can get so commercialized, he said, “But I think it’s one of the holiest seasons, personally, and like Easter—it’s not about rabbits and eggs and everything else. … Remembering the birth of Christ is an important story because that’s where the life of Jesus started. Without his birth there would be no cross.”

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