MOORHEAD — As guests began gathering at the Kotrba family farm north of Moorhead one recent, unseasonably warm winter night, three lively wise men worked their way through the scattering of visitors.
“Can you tell me, where is the king of the Jews?” asked one, dressed in red and gold, of a nearby observer.
“Where are we going?” asked another, a slightly crooked crown atop his head.
A third answered emphatically, “We’re following the star!”
Granted, these Magi were slightly shorter than the originals, each only 12 years in age. And instead of camels, their faithful, furry travel companion was a brown llama named Caspian — named for one of the seas in the region where a trio of learned men traveled the road to Bethlehem that first holy night.
And rather than a single, bright star lighting the path, milk jugs filled with sand and a lit candle guided the way to the stable.
Inside, beyond a gate, straw underfoot, sheep and a white llama shared their usual quarters with likenesses of Mary and Joseph, while small, wiggly “angels” with bent, glittery halos, flitted about, gazing occasionally at the babe sleeping soundly — for at least some of the time — in the manger.
“We decided to do it kind of on a whim,” says Lynn Kotrba of the live Nativity at their farm Dec. 11-13, hosted in conjunction with their nonprofit, Harvest Hope Farm. “We just realized people have no school programs, no concerts, nothing really going on live. We wanted to help others celebrate and prepare for Christmas — and give them some hope.”
And to remind them that, despite all the hard things we’ve all endured this year, Christmas hasn’t been canceled.
“We really felt like, being outdoors, we could do this, and still take precautions,” Lynn notes.
A quieter season
While carolers softly sang traditional Christmas hymns on the deck of their nearby farmhouse, guests meandered around haybales set up for social distancing, grasping cups of hot chocolate and cider, and worked their way to the climactic centerpiece: the barn. Inside, they heard a recitation of the Christmas story, and gazed at a live reenactment of the Nativity from 2020 years ago, while roosters peered down from rafters on high.
Sarah Prososki, one of the 50 volunteers who represented Mary on the second night of the live Nativity, knew about but had never visited the farm before that evening.
“It was neat to see where the farm was — it’s a beautiful area in general — and inspiring to see what (the Kotrbas) have done there.”
As for the live Nativity itself, “It was a good experience, something different, to enter into the season of Advent and prepare our hearts for Christmas.”
Upon arrival, she says, Autumn Kotrba, the oldest of the eight children, welcomed them and helped them into their costumes — clothing borrowed from First Lutheran and Holy Spirit churches from past Christmas programs.
Prososki says her four children loved petting the animals and being right next to them. Her 4-year-old, Jonah, later commented, “I really liked looking at the sheep, but the biggest sheep (the llama) was way bigger than me!”
Even unprovoked, she says, several of the kids did an impromptu, visual rendering of their role as the story was read. Her daughters, wearing white, satin gowns, “put their arms out” when angels were mentioned, and her oldest son “acted out the part” of the messenger angel, Gabriel, kneeling down on the hay at the appropriate moment.
“You can see how much the Christmas story means to them, when they take it to heart,” in this way, she says, adding that her kids also loved that baby “Jesus” — played by Michael, the youngest Kotrba child, born in August — was not a doll, but real.
Being in an actual manger also connected the family with their annual tradition, whereby each child receives a “little manger made up for baby Jesus,” and, any time during the weeks leading up to Christmas when they perform “an act of love,” they can add a piece of hay to their manger. Jesus is then placed on the manger on Christmas Day.
“This year will be quieter,” Prososki admits, “but the main reason for the season is Jesus, so even though it will be a different Christmas, we’re looking forward to going to Mass and celebrating his birth.”
COVID-19, she says, has reminded them that “we’re made for eternity,” and “as long as we keep our eyes on Christ, the newborn king and the hope of heaven, we have a lot to be hopeful for.”
A chance to celebrate
Jason Kotrba, who, along with helping manage the farm, serves as principal of Holy Spirit Elementary School in Fargo, says even though they were all tired by the end of the third day, “We felt joy doing it. It was a good thing to do.”
Around 300 people came out to view the live Nativity — friends and strangers alike — with the only advertising being social media and word of mouth. Early on, indications pointed to people being eager to see a live Nativity.
“Two weekends (prior), a grandma with her van full of grandkids drove up, thinking it was that weekend,” Lynn says. “I said to Jason, ‘Well, we know at least one vehicle that’s going to come!’ We really had no idea what to expect, so I’m quite happy with the numbers, considering it was our first time doing it.”
Several people even told her it brought them to tears — including a friend who initially said she was too busy packing for a move to come out, but who decided to take a little break on a box run to view the scene.
“If she was the only person who came, it was worth it,” Lynn says. “We did it for exactly that reason — to bring people closer to the real meaning of Christmas.”
Jason agrees that, from all observable accounts, the event helped revive the excitement surrounding Christ’s birth.
“It centers you, and makes you listen a little bit more as to why the Christmas season is going on,” he says.
“This also gave people an excuse to get out of the house to go celebrate,” he adds. “If people were seeking and wanting to feel Christmas, they were able to do that.”
The typical Kotrba Christmas has involved a house teeming with extended relatives.
“Nobody (extra) will be joining us this year, but there will be more opportunity to spend time as a family, play games, and hopefully go sledding and snowshoeing,” Jason says, along with possibly ice fishing and pheasant hunting.
Regardless of how we celebrate this special time of the year, he says, something that’s been on his mind seems worth suggesting to others.
“Find your quiet place and listen. And you can take that whatever way you want — spiritually or otherwise. But just find your quiet place, and go there to unwind, and hear what’s in your heart.”
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Dec. 25, 2020.]