Prestonwood Baptist Church’s annual pageant is bound to put you in the Christmas Spirit
Flying Santa Claus, drummers suspended in air, 20 animals including camels and alpacas, a breathing and crying Baby Jesus: the Prestonwood Baptist Church’s “The Gift of Christmas” is a spectacular extravaganza that impresses every year. With an audience of nearly 70,000 people from across the country, attending this show has become a holiday tradition for thousands.
Andy Pearson, director of Next Gen choirs/creative production, and Michael Neal, lead worship pastor, are the creative brains behind the show. This year will be Andy’s 17th Christmas at Prestonwood, but he distinctly remembers his first show.
“It was hard for me to understand that I could be a part of such an incredible experience. I remember being in awe. It was overwhelming. I love to sit in the audience, turn around and watch everyone’s expressions when the camels come in and when they hold Baby Jesus up. To me, that’s the most incredible part,” Andy says.
The production is 90 minutes long with three acts where people run, dance and fly throughout the entire auditorium to original music and choreography.
The first act features traditional Christmas motifs like Frosty the Snowman, ice skating and Rockette-style kick lines.
Act 2 is centered around music with narration that provides context for Act 3, which is the story of Christ’s birth. The cast is made up of 1,500 people of all ages plus behind-the-scenes volunteers. Putting on a show like this requires year-round attention.
“Your mind really never shuts off. Even as the show was going on last year, I was thinking about how to redo certain things. If we’re doing a complete set redesign, we start that in January. Creative meetings are held throughout the spring to vision cast and talk big ideas, and final decisions are made by May in order to get sets produced.
“Musically and creatively, the heat gets turned up in July and August. By the end of August, the cast has been chosen and we’re ready to go. Then, we start doing orchestration and musical arrangements, graphics and creative content, choreography, costuming—the whole nine yards,” Andy explains.
While some people would rejoice if they got to think about Christmas all year, it took Andy some time to adapt. “The first few years, it was really hard to wrap my mind around Frosty the Snowman and “Oh Holy Night” when it was 100 degrees outside. Something physically just didn’t jive. But all year round you get inspired by things, sometimes by stuff that has nothing to do with Christmas.”
To put on such a production, hundreds of volunteers spend countless hours making Andy and Michael’s vision come to life.
“In order to keep our cast organized we have lots of very detailed people who love spreadsheets. Where my eyes glaze over, they love it!” Michael says.
“We’ve got a team of 25 who do costumes, a team that does nothing but props, a team that communicates with cast members and that’s all that they do. If one person tried to handle that—there’s no way. There’s a whole host of people who deal with the animals. We have over 100 adult volunteers that manage the little kids, walking them from their rooms down to the stage and back up. There are so many volunteers, people don’t even realize. There’s as much show and coordination onstage as backstage,” Andy explains.
Putting on a show at such a professional level, requires a robust budget. “The budget fluctuates depending on the content we have to create because we don’t create brand new content every year. The great thing is it doesn’t cost the church to do it because the ticket sales support it,” Michael says.
This year’s show will debut a completely new Act 1, and while Andy refuses to give anything away Michael says the nostalgia of Christmas is represented with some fun and fresh surprises.
“There’s something in the show for everyone, whether you’re five or 95. There’s stuff millennials will love and our parents will love. It’s reflective of our church; we’re cross-generational and the show is too,” Andy says.
Michael sums up the experience in a final thought: “The whole point isn’t to create a spectacle for people to think, “Oh wow, look at Prestonwood.” The show is how we say, in the most lavish and artistic and compelling way, that we believe Christ is the hope for the world. That’s why we do it.”
Tickets for this year’s performance are sold out but you can sign up for an e-mail alert for the 2018 show here.