WINCHESTER — Big changes are coming this year to the popular Follow the Star event, including the date, the location and even how visitors will experience the re-created Christmas story.
Typically held the first weekend in December, Follow the Star attracts thousands of people to the Kernstown Battlefield to witness an elaborate depiction of the birth of Jesus Christ. More than 400 volunteers from Fellowship Bible Church work for weeks to act out all the parts, operate a marketplace, take care of the animals, set up the scenery, operate the sound system and keep the crowd moving. Church members also bake more than 2,400 dozen cookies to share with their guests at the end of the Follow the Star experience.
Now in its 11th year, Follow the Star can attract more than 6,000 people when the weather is nice. There is no charge.
This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic — and the weather — Fellowship Bible Church has had to change its plans.
First change? The date. Instead of being held this weekend, Follow the Star will take place from 5-9 p.m. Dec. 12 and 13. The weather forecast for today calls for rain and wind, making it difficult to hold a dress rehearsal. Delaying one weekend offers a better chance at having nicer weather, said Karen Santmier, who organizes the annual event along with her husband Scott and Tim and Angie LeMay.
Next change? The location. Follow the Star will take place at Fellowship Bible Church, a large church with a large parking lot at 3217 Middle Road.
Changing the location was necessary because of the biggest change required by the pandemic’s social distancing limitations: Follow the Star is drive-through only this year.
Same timeless story, same important message. You’ll just experience it in the comfort and warmth of your vehicle.
“All the main parts are there, and you’ll be able to hear it better,” Santmier said.
The Angel Gabriel will still break the news to the virgin Mary that she will be giving birth to a son and she is to call him Jesus. The shepherds will still be abiding in the fields. Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus will still huddle with the animals in the stable because there is no room for them in the inn.
But visitors will see these scenes from their cars while listening to a prerecorded script. Greeters at the front of the parking lot will help visitors access a QR code on their cellphones to hear the story. Those who don’t have a cellphone will be given a CD with the recorded script to insert into their car stereo.
Follow the Star is a holiday tradition for many families, but a drive-through experience will give those who usually can’t participate a chance to see it, Santmier said, such as families with young children or people with physical limitations who can’t get in and out of a hay wagon, which is how visitors are transported onto the battlefield.
There’s one other change visitors should know about.
At the end of Follow the Star this year, there will not be any cookies.
“Because of COVID, we can’t hand out food,” Santmier said. “We want people to feel like they’re safe.”