Amid the Glitz: A Christmas Reminder

by Sharon Plawin

For the past 14 years at the Grand Illumination Parade in Norfolk, Va., there’s been a small, humble float depicting the Nativity. Out of some 80 parade units, it’s about the only reminder of the real meaning of Christmas and one of the few units to play Christmas carols. It’s Trinity Lutheran Church and School’s way of proclaiming the Savior’s birth to a world that has, in many respects, turned Christmas into a secular holiday.

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Trinity Lutheran day-school students Jewel Williams and Logan Riales participate in Norfolk’s Grand Illumination Parade as Mary and Joseph.
Photo courtesy of author

The parade has been a tradition in Norfolk for the past quarter century. It draws about 100,000 spectators and lots of local media coverage in our metropolitan area of more than a million. It kicks off Norfolk’s official “holiday” season the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and it includes the lighting of downtown buildings and other festivities. For 14 years now, the children of Trinity’s Sunday and day schools have been a part of that parade with their Nativity presentation.

The idea for entering a Nativity unit came to me while watching the parade in 1994. I realized that not one Christmas carol was being played, and there was no hint of the real meaning of Christmas anywhere. I couldn’t believe it. It dawned on me then that if you want to affect the culture in which you live, you’ve got to do more than complain. Why not have Trinity, my church, enter a unit? We had plenty of children in our day school, which runs through fifth grade, and Trinity has always been about outreach.

Rev. Jim O’Connor, who recently retired as pastor of Trinity, became the guiding force for the idea and for Trinity’s efforts. “Along with the many exciting events I’ve experienced in my ministry throughout the world, our participation in the annual Illumination Parade is among my top ten,” he says. “It’s simplicity writ large; and the message is as clear as a pealing church bell. Amidst the bands, the parading community backers, the strutting horses, the expensive floats, the giant character balloons, and secular Christmas songs that dominate the event, here come the students of Trinity in handmade costumes, led by a made-from-scratch float carrying Mary, Joseph, and the Child.”

Most important, O’Connor adds, “The Cross is always in plain view.”

Trinity’s school administrator, Judy Sykes, also welcomed the idea. “As a LCMS elementary school, sharing the Gospel is a primary concern. This special event nurtures the faith of our students, as well as the bystanders at the parade,” she observes. “Initially we weren’t even sure a Nativity unit would be accepted for participation, but every year our entry has been approved. We applaud our city for that.”

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Norfolk, Va. skyline
Photo courtesy of author

No Small Effort

The planning and paperwork begin in the summer. A group of school parents take charge of setting up the float. A member of the congregation owns a DJ business, and he supplies the music and lights.

One of the challenges each year is making the float reflect the parade’s theme. Last year (2008), the theme was “Celebrate the SEAson,” with emphasis on the sea, since Norfolk is a seaport town. Trinity’s entry was “Christ Was Born across the Sea,” a line from “The Battle Hymn of The Republic.” The lyrics were part of the script Trinity provided for the parade’s coverage on local TV: “In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the SEA / With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me / As He died to make men holy, / Let us live to make men free / While God is marching on.” The words of poet Julia Ward Howe reminded TV viewers that this incredible Christmas event—the birth of Jesus—took place more than 2,000 years ago in the tiny village of Bethlehem, far across the ocean from the continent that is now north America.

On parade day, it’s an endurance test for the children. They have to assemble at the church in the late afternoon and carpool to the parade’s starting point at Norfolk’s Harbor Park baseball stadium. Then there’s a two-hour wait before the 7 p.m. start—and another half hour or so until the unit begins marching. “The children sense we’re doing something important,” Sykes says. “They know we’re marching to put Jesus in the parade.”

Sowing Seeds

Trinity is a self-described “traditional” Lutheran church in the heart of Norfolk, home to the world’s largest naval base and one of the busiest international ports on the East Coast. In a very real sense, the whole world comes to Norfolk and to Trinity’s door.

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Trinity Lutheran members participating in the Grand Illumination Parade
Photo courtesy of author

We have been around for 89 years and have always been a home away from home for our military men and women and their families. We are also the mother church in Hampton Roads, having planted nine mission congregations and started one of the first kindergartens in the area long before kindergarten was a part of the public school system. We host an annual “Oktoberfest” (with a Reformation emphasis), sponsor classical concerts, and regularly seek other opportunities to invite our community to Trinity. In our parade script, we always invite people to our Christmas services, but the most important thing is that we’re giving Christ His rightful place out there in the culture.

“No matter how cold it’s been on parade evenings, the crowd warmed to the traditional message of the baby Jesus and invariably raised a loud cheer.” O’Connor says about his parade experiences. “You may think that might have been out of place, clapping and cheering the way they did, but I think our Lord reveled in the recognition. Our gracious God had moved out of the church doors into the midst of a crowd on a cold winter night; and the people loved it! I suspect that only the Holy Spirit knows what exactly was in their hearts.”

As a member of Trinity, I’m always honored to march with Trinity’s Nativity float. As we move through the streets of downtown Norfolk, I sense the Lord is smiling.

About the Author: Sharon Plawin is a member of Trinity Lutheran Church, Norfolk, Va. This year marked the 25th anniversary of Norfolk’s illumination parade. in response to the parade theme “it’s Silver.” Trinity’s Nativity float Nov. 21 featured “Silver Stars over Bethlehem.”

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