Advent is a season short in duration but long in distance. It is the journey of a soul from Nazareth to Bethlehem—a mere hundred miles, yet really the span from here to eternity.
Every year, for one night, the little town of Bala, Ontario, stages a dramatic representation of this Advent pilgrimage, which they call the Trek to Bethlehem. The year 2018 was the 25th year of the Bala Trek.
Earlier that same year, my wife and I moved to Bracebridge, not far from Bala. Come December we’re eager to check out the Trek. Bala is located halfway around Lake Muskoka from Bracebridge, so you can go either north or south around the lake. Consulting Google, I find the northern route through Port Carling is 36 minutes, while the southern route through Gravenhurst is 35 minutes. As we’re a little short of time, naturally we opt to head south. Even on a trip to eternity, a minute is still worth something.
It’s not our first excursion to Bala. We went once in the summer to visit Bala’s Museum, dedicated to the writer Lucy Maude Montgomery. Turns out this tiny town has the largest collection of Montgomery artifacts in the world. I was duly impressed.
Setting out for Bala once again, I have no idea that what awaits me is an experience of another order of magnitude. The weather is overcast, zero degrees, no wind. The night presses close against the windows of the car. Our trek has begun.
Arriving in Bala, the first thing we see is a large digital sign proclaiming that blasting is underway up ahead. Blasting? On a Saturday night in winter? Sure enough, as we approach the bridge over Bala Falls, it is reduced to one lane controlled by a traffic light. Off to the side, deep in cofferdams in the midst of the falls, gigantic machines are working. In response to local protests, this work had formerly been halted, but now with a new government the despoilment of this renowned beauty spot has resumed. It seems an ominous beginning to our Bethlehem journey.
Further on, we come to a place where the main road is lined with parked cars. This must be it. We park, and walk towards the men in day-glo vests who are directing trekkers. Soon we’re met by a large woman in a striped bathrobe and head covering, who hands us a ‘passport’ and directs us to join a queue. Bathrobes are something we’re going to see a lot of tonight, mostly adorning large seniors. I understand that it’s cold, and that these robes conceal bulky parkas. Still, one can tell that the bodies beneath possess a good deal of inherent bulk. I have to wonder: where does such a tiny town get so many large old people?
A moment later we learn one answer from another of these specimens, who informs us she’s come all the way from Hamilton to participate in this event. A summer cottager, she wouldn’t miss returning for the annual Trek. Bala, understand, is in the heart of Muskoka, prime cottage country two hours north of Toronto. Its population, a few hundred in winter, swells to thousands in summer. Later I discover that, along with cottagers, a large proportion of the permanent residents of Bala are involved in this production. According to one participant, “If you live in Bala, you’re in the Trek.”
While standing in line outside the community center, we’re caroled by a mixed choir, not in bathrobes but in smart evening dress, the men all sporting Santa ties. Heartened by this glad assemblage, the season’s first hint of Christmas, I smile broadly and pretend to direct them, to which they respond by singing more lustily.
Eventually we’re admitted inside. To my surprise the place is chock full and a concert is in progress. More carolers, this time children, whose faces look as if they’ve been scrubbed by angels. They’re followed by a choir of young people, girls in long black dresses and small round caps, boys in white shirts and shiny black trousers. They sing a selection of hymns in splendid four-part harmony: “Fairest Lord Jesus,” “The Matchless Name of Jesus,” “O the Deep Deep Love of Jesus.” Hm … seems to be a theme here? It’s my first clue that this event will not bow the knee to secularism but will be entirely Christ-centered. And this not in a church but in a community hall.
Next up is a short dark-haired woman who sings three songs: “Mary, Don’t You Know?”, “Hallelujah” (the version with Christmas lyrics), and “O Holy Night.” Apparently she performs these same three numbers every year, interspersed with glowing testimonies of her love for Jesus. Her voice has a lyrical sweetness that also swells to operatic grandeur. As I’m no opera goer, the final note she strikes on “O Holy Night” is quite possibly the highest note I’ve ever heard in a live performance. If I were a wine glass I’d be trembling in my boots.
We’re in the hall for about half an hour, waiting for Roman numeral XIX to come up. That’s the number on our passport, which is a decree signed by Caesar Augustus: You are summoned to the city of your fathers for a census and a head tax. We’ve been told to hang on to this passport for dear life, as it will be required of us.
Finally XIX appears on a placard and we make our way to the back of the hall to muster with our Trek leader, a bathrobed shepherdess named Eve. I refrain from asking if she’s married to Adam, or if her first name happens to be Christmas. Explaining to our group of eighteen that we’re a family on our way to Bethlehem, Eve warns of dangers ahead: Roman soldiers, brigands, a long and difficult trail.
And so, following Eve’s raised lantern along a route marked by torches and braziers, we set out into the cold. It’s still overcast, but a motheaten moon glimmers palely through the cloud cover. Sparse snow mantles the earth, Eve warns of ice underfoot, and tall trees limned with white rise crisply into a surprisingly bright sky.
Suddenly—a loud clatter! Alarmed, we stop short, as out of the night spring two Roman legionnaires, whacking wooden swords on wooden shields. As predicted, they demand our passports and generally give us a rough time. One poor child has mislaid his passport, and it looks like he may be detained. But finally we’re all allowed to pass.
Despite this harrassment, the mood in our ‘family’ remains droll, ironic. There are jokes and wry comments: Didn’t know it was so cold in the Holy Land! … Or that it got so much snow … When do we meet the brigands? … Even Eve is not totally serious but maintains a slightly ironic edge, as if to say—We all know this isn’t for real, but let’s just play along.
Next we encounter the three magi, sumptuously attired but looking none too warm huddled in their rickety lean-to. Someone whispers that the enactors must stay in place for six hours and the nearest bathroom is a quarter mile away. “Sacrifice is involved.” The magi ask if we’ve seen anything of a star announcing the birth of a new-born King—we look up; nope, no star—and then they show us their gifts. A few of us are allowed to sniff the frankincense and myrhh, and it’s clear we wouldn’t mind getting our hands on that box of gold. But we have to move on to an encampment of shepherds with a pair of live sheep. The animals, so very real, so wooly white in the big dark night, are the most interesting thing we’ve seen so far …
… until all at once the night erupts with ANGELS! A floodlit band of twelve appears overhead and breaks into “Angels from the Realms of Glory.” They stand on an upper balcony, apparently floating on billows of cardboard cloud. “Oh!” exclaims Eve. “We have seen wonderful things this night!”
Um … if you say so. I mean, sure, all these folks have gone to a whole lot of trouble, and it’s kind of fun being shepherded along, wandering through the darkened town, where even the streetlights are off. But let’s be honest: it’s all a little bit hokey. Not in a bad way, mind you, but in a cute, whimsical sort of way. We’re adults, playing a little game for the sake of the few kids amongst us. Okay, I’m in. But will there be hot chocolate at the end?
I’m not the only one thinking this. Even the animators, probably just because they’re amateurs, maintain a discreet distance from their role. Hey, we’re not idiots, we have our dignity.
This is about to change. Our next encounter is with a leper, and this guy is the real thing. I don’t mean he really has leprosy—at least, I hope not—but you wouldn’t know that from his act. He’s totally into it, crying and wailing over his fate, having to beg for food, cut off forever from his family, on and on. His performance, I have to say, is unsettling. Abashed, unnerved, we move on to the gates of Bethlehem, only to be accosted by two more legionnaires, these ones even surlier than the first.
Finally we arrive at an inn. Naturally, there’s no room. Even the stables are occupied by Roman troops. So we’re forced to proceed to the tax-collectors’ booth, where two large old men preside in opulent robes with what look like couch cushions on their heads. Of course we don’t have enough money to satisfy them, but after some hassling, they stamp our passports anyway.
And then: the Marketplace! Oh, what wondrous sights and sounds are here! Stalls with jewelry, brassware, baskets, exotic foods, pens with live animals—a calf, a donkey. Seeing some octopus at the fish stand, I ask the vendor, “Do these come from Lake Muskoka?” Soberly he replies, “No, sir, from the Dead Sea. Octopus is the only thing that lives in the Dead Sea.” This is news to me. “If that’s true,” I inquire, “then what do they eat?” He shrugs. “Each other, I guess.” Time to move along.
By now, a few snowflakes appear, only a very few, yards apart as though molecules of air are intermittently fluorescing like fireflies. After the bright marketplace, the night appears darker, larger, emptier than ever. Suddenly we hear a train, quite close. Eve exclaims, “Oh! a wonderful sound from heaven! What wonderful things we have heard this night!” Someone (me) says, “Is it Santa’s sleigh?” But the sound, both the whistle and the thundering, really does seem preternatural in the towering night—as though announcing something tremendous.
And then, emerging from a tiny hut, a prophet appears, not in a striped robe this time but entirely in black, girdled with hemp. “Fear not!” he proclaims. “For behold, I bring you tidings of great joy. This very night, in David’s town, is born to you a Savior who is Christ the Lord …” If I were to volunteer for a part in the Bala Trek, this is the role I’d want. But probably this guy has it sewn up. He looks like he’s done it for all 25 years, maybe longer.
Despite the prophet and the greatness of his pronouncement, despite everything that has gone before, despite even the fact that we all know this story, nothing can prepare us for what happens next. Something changes in the air. Is it the snow? It’s a little thicker now, silvery flakes floating down like bits of parchment, each one perhaps inscribed with a holy word. That’s how it feels, even before we see …
Ah! The stable—with Joseph, Mary, and the baby. That is all. No shepherds, no angels, no props, no drama, no movement, no words. The only other thing is a huge horned cow, looking all the bigger for the smallness of the babe.
The figures barely move; at first I’m not sure if they’re real. Mary and Joseph are, but the baby is not; he might be a swaddled zucchini? Even so, he rivets my gaze as surely as if I’m staring straight at God.
At a cue from Eve, we sing one verse of Silent Night, throughout which the cow lows more softly than any cow I’ve ever heard. Do cows whisper? Then, once again, all is quiet. I am deeply moved. What is it about this simple scene? How tiny that baby is, and how perfectly human! And suddenly I see how the crib is exactly like the cross: God entirely helpless in our hands—His total gift of Himself.
Here, then, is the purpose of this whole great production, all these characters, this enormous effort. These dear people of Bala—this is why they do it. Right here is the center, the focus, of this whole great night, indeed of every night and of every day, the heart of the cosmos. The very stars (though invisible) hang upon this moment, this event. Our whole group, our family, is quiet; no one dares break the spell. No one, we all know, is worthy to speak, to say one word. No wonder the mood before this has been wry and jocular: What could possibly compare with this awesome reality that all along was about to be revealed?
I could stay here forever, savoring this. But in this world, nothing lasts. It’s time to go. And so we shuffle along to the last stop: the Jerusalem Inn (aka hockey rink) where cookies, cider, and yes, hot chocolate are served. The soundtrack here is an approximation of first century music: zithers, cymbals, tambor, flute, David’s harp. It all feels exactly right.
Yet this, too, must end. We must emerge again into the cold to find our chariot. But not before we pass one final attraction. Interestingly, if the Trek to Bethlehem is a kind of Advent version of the Stations of the Cross, to arrive at a total of fourteen this last, unlikliest of stations must be counted: to wit, the everlasting gift store. This beacon of consumerism is lit up like nobody’s business. Welcome back to the twenty-first century. What a great location this merchant has—one night a year. Of course we go in. It’s crammed with Christmas bric-a-brac—ornaments, curios, crèche figures, cards, on and on. The music here is 60’s rock: Help Me, Rhonda. Yes, help us all. I almost fall for a tacky touch-lamp for $50, but resist. That old urge, this close to Christmas, to buy something—anything.
Even so, nothing can spoil the absolute purity, the unutterable holiness, of what I’ve just experienced. That vision in the stable: pure Gift.
And so we drive home, wondering, happy, through the long winter night.
This is Christmas.
Read more of my Christmas stories in Twenty-One Candles: Stories for Christmas
Next Post: Fra Giovanni’s Christmas Letter