The craft show was housed in the building right at the top of the entrance steps, so that's where I ended up first, my oldest son towing me along. He admired the $8 handmade, one-of-a-kind beanies while I tried to take in all the merchandise: birdhouses; towels and blankets; wood-handled pens; English black breakfast tea; knives and cutting boards; embroidered quilts ("As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord"); scented candles (white chocolate!); and all manner of Christmas-themed decorations, ornaments, plates, and cards. Outside, we found the funnel-cake cart. While we waited, I listened to the children's choir: a dozen or so kids on risers, most of them dressed entirely in white, singing in unison: "It's Christmas time of the year/ Ring those bells and start to cheer/ He is the savior and king/ He's the reason why we sing." Side-steps and jazz-hands and turnarounds as they sang; traded-off solos and even a lip-synched groovy tune. The show concluded with a rendition of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."
Shortly after the children finished, the surrounding Christmas trees -- eight small and one large -- put on a show of their own: strands of multicolored lights executing a series of fades, crawls, and flashes, all synchronized with a synth-rock version of "The Carol of the Bells."
On the landing above the choir, Santa sat amid a cluster of white trees hung with red-and-white ornaments, receiving children and their Christmas wishes. "What do you want, buddy? You been good?" Parents took pictures with their cell phones; children got shy.
Meanwhile, my wife took the other kiddies on the sled run -- two long and gently sloping trails, lined with hay bales and filled with an icy snow. "The line moves very quickly," she reported. "If you want to race, they'll put you on opposite sides, say 'One, two, three, go!' and push you."
Acrobats performed routines on hanging scarves and trampolines, first accompanied by a breathy emo performance of "Little Drummer Boy," then a pop ballad sung over a synth-heavy take on Pachelbel's Canon in D. "This night we pray/ Our hearts will show/ This dream we have/ Each child still knows/ On this night, on this night, on this holy Christmas night..." Then it was back to tradition: a hand-bell choir, gracefully chiming out "Joy to the World," before we headed to the bleachers for the main event.
My boys argued about whether the donkey in the stable at the foot of the cliff was real or fake. Eventually, the donkey raised his head and showed himself to be as real as the rest of the animals that joined him for the living nativity scene.
Pastor Garlow welcomed us and explained that some of the lights had been impacted by the previous night's rains. There would be no lightshow, just standard theatrical spots. He offered CDs to every family to compensate; all you had to do was fill out an information card. He also gave a CD to the oldest attendee (85) and a DVD to the family with the most children (9).
Showtime: an overture medley sung by a huge choir in robes and sandals. Bits from "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and "What Child is This?" -- the huge sound and grand harmonies giving way to a single male voice: "Mary did you know/ That your baby boy/ Would give sight to a blind man?/ Mary did you know/ That your baby boy/ Would calm the storms with his hand?"
The innkeeper narrated the nativity story while the characters played out the scene under the stars: Mary and Joseph in the stable with their newborn son, the angel rising above the shepherds to proclaim the good news, the kings riding in on camels and paying homage. The choir veered between pops-concert excerpts from traditional carols (the soprano on "O Holy Night" fluttering around the high notes like Mariah Carey) and modern, jazzy strains: "Oh, when they saw the star / They re joiced with great joy ..."
"Every story has a beginning," concluded the narrator. "This one has no end.... So many great men have come and gone, but He lives on.... It is no exaggeration to say that nothing has affected the life of man on this earth as much as that one solitary life."
Pastor Garlow had the final word. "What is it about that story that is so compelling? The answer is that you were made in the image of God.... Within you is a longing to be connected to the eternal, and you have some sense that this story is the answer to that quest within your heart.... Don't miss this opportunity.... There may be a tug on your heart right now, and that tug has a name: the Holy Spirit of God, saying, 'Now. Receive me now.'"
11330 Campo Road, La Mesa
Founded locally: 1954
Senior pastor: Dr. Jim Garlow
Congregation size: about 2800
Staff size: 14 pastors
Sunday school enrollment: about 1800, including small groups
Annual budget: $5 million
Weekly giving: $90,000
Singles program: yes; one for under 35, one for 35+
Diversity: mostly Caucasian, a fair number of African-Americans, and some Hispanics
Sunday worship: 8:15 a.m., 9:30 a.m., 11 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 45 minutes