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December Nights: Behind the Scenes of the Christmas Story Tree

For most people, it is just a fun event. They see it as a time to gaze in awe at a 30-foot glittering pine, and a chance to sing along with the crowd to holiday hymns. But for me, it’s a little different.

For three days, starting Dec. 1, Del Cerro Baptist Church puts on the annual Christmas Story Tree during the December Nights in Balboa Park. My family and I have been attending Del Cerro Baptist Church for eight years and have been a part of the magic every year since. From helping to set up the tree, singing in the choir or being a part of the acted-out nativity scenes, us Mooney’s have always been involved.

This year, my dad acted as the innkeeper in the nativity scene. When he wasn’t busy entertaining the crowds, he was behind the tree helping my 16-year-old brother with opening and closing the doors located at the base of the tree. When the doors are closed, it looks like a normal Christmas tree, but when the doors open, a world of shepherds and wise men appears. The doors are heavy steel cages on wheels that take a couple strong people to pull them open and slide them closed.

This year, I received backstage access to observe and experience all the ins and outs of what it takes to put on this show. Setting up the main spectacle—the tree—takes about three days of preparation. The steel frame is put in place and then is covered in real Balsam branches. The final stage is decorating the tree with hundreds of ornaments, festive lights and red ribbons.

Before the performance, the cast and crew are busy backstage getting ready. The choir is practicing vocals, the actors are getting their heavy makeup done in preparation for the bright lights and the tree workers are looking at musical notes to figure out their cue to open the Christmas tree doors.

“The number one thing is the fun that we have working together, seeing the people we normally don’t get to see during the day,” said production director Karen Plunk. “We spend all of Monday here at Balboa Park as well as all of Tuesday and Wednesday.”

When asked what her favorite part of this experience is, Plunk said, “The opportunity to tell the Jesus story in this multicultural marketplace venue. It’s just amazing and so unique that we are able to do that. “

The audience of this performance loved the show just as much as the crew did. For me, the best part of this performance is that most of the audience doesn’t have the slightest clue that the tree opens up to be a nativity scene. That night, when the tree opened up for the first time, you could hear the audience gasp along with a flood of “Oohs” and “Ahhs.”

The lights on the tree and on the stage were also a show of their own. The Organ Pavilion was lit up with snowy designs and the tree was colorful and magnificently bright. Sitting next to me was a baby about five months old with an amazed expression on his face, mouth wide open, and eyes perfect spheres. When the choir started to sing, the baby tried to sing along with them and the people around us loved it.

Sharing the story of the birth of Jesus Christ through this performance is the highlight of my holiday season. It’s a beloved family tradition that we get to share with all of Balboa Park. People from all over San Diego get to watch, experience and learn the story of Christmas and that is absolutely amazing.

About the author

Natalie Mooney

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