By Pat Veltri
“It will remain a sacred display without commercialism.” That’s a recorded proviso in the archives of the Lions Club, a service organization that has partnered with the city of Raton for almost seventy years in the yearly setting up of the City of Bethlehem, a montage of the Nativity of Christ.
A series of twenty scenes cut from plywood, artistically rendered, complete with words of explanation and enhanced lighting, the City of Bethlehem display is permanently housed in the city-owned Climax Canyon at the outer periphery of Apache Avenue.
Turning the lights on in the City of Bethlehem occurs annually on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and coincides with the lighting of the town’s Christmas tree. The display, gratis to visitors, remains open until the first of January.
Spanning the decades of its existence, various public figures, including governors, television personalities, and senators, have pulled the switch to open the tableau, but mostly it’s been local people and Lions dignitaries. According to Jim Mullings, who has been a member of the Lions Club for thirty-five years, various individuals are nominated for the honor at the club’s regular meetings throughout the year. “It’s just a good idea someone has,” Mullings says, “sometimes to honor a person, someone who has been very helpful to us and so forth.” Raton’s Chief of Police, John Garcia, was the designee for the 2015 lighting ceremony.
The Lions Club was chartered in 1945 and within a short period of time a young Lion, Glen Karlin, brought the idea of a lighted display of the Nativity to his fellow club members. Mullings, a local artist and retired educator, says, “Glen Karlin was a student at the University of New Mexico and he returned home one time through Madrid, New Mexico. Madrid had a unique outdoor lighting display depicting the birth of Christ. He brought the idea to the Lions Club and the first year they simply did a Nativity scene.”
The following highlights of the history of the City of Bethlehem were culled from the archives of The Raton Daily Range:
- 1947 On December 17, 1947 The Range reported that the Raton Lions Club was planning to erect a Christmas scene on the lawn of the courthouse. The Range said, “The Christmas display, arranged by Woodrow (Woody) Ballard, will include a big Christmas tree and a Nativity scene. Christmas carols will be played at the display over a public address system during the week of Christmas.”
- 1948 The initial response from the public to the simple display was positive so the following year the club decided to expand the project. Beginning in November of 1948 the club made plans for a drive to finance a Christmas display in Climax Canyon. The Range stated, “The project has been underwritten and promoted by the Raton Lions Club. Any financial assistance from anyone will be greatly appreciated, officials of the club said.” By the end of November, $675, including a $50 pledge from the Kiwanis Club, was collected to build three scenes. The city improved the canyon road and considered the idea of a horseshoe drive in and out of the canyon. On December 6, 1948 lights were flicked on for the first time in the Lions Club sponsored City of Bethlehem display. A public address system played sacred music while the scenes were lighted.
- 1949 In 1949 the club conducted another successful financial drive to pay for more scenes for the display. Invitations were sent to eighteen Lions Clubs in the area to participate in the turning-on ceremony. Mayor C.L. Healey pulled the switch that lighted the canyon with nine Christmas scenes. Photographers Dan Sheehan of Raton and Fred Baker of The Denver Post recorded the event on film.
- 1950 In 1950 Raton’s citizens once again opened their pocketbooks and generously donated money to the City of Bethlehem fund. On December 12 The Range said, “It was announced by drive chairman Charles Toller that a total of $1143.27 had been raised for the lighting.” Woody Ballard was chosen Ratonian of the Month by The Range and praised by Range columnist, Jim Elliot, “for his work on the City of Bethlehem Christmas lighting scenes”. Fred Baker, a photographer for The Denver Post, pulled the switch for the third year of the display.
- 1951 In the year 1951 the term “bigger and better” aptly described the Lions Club Christmas display. Glenn Karlin was the general chairman for the fund drive, which was seeking $1000 to build additional scenes and displays.
Attendance at opening night was twice as large as the previous year. An estimated 1815 people “oohed and aahed” at the 1951 City of Bethlehem lighting display. The Range gave daily accounts of cars and passengers visiting the display and noted the different states that were represented. The final tally for 1951 was nearly 30,000 people! The show was closed two days early because many of the scenes were destroyed by high winds.
- 1952 In 1952 The Lions Club made the decision to relocate the City of Bethlehem to the old Raton Pass. The move was decided upon in order to accommodate the increasing number of visitors as well as the expansion of the display itself. Locations for the scenes were selected in early November. For the fifth year of the display, another fund drive was held to defray the expense of moving the display and the expense of adding scenes and repainting some of the old scenes.
Another first for 1952 was the addition of five Toyland scenes on top of Goat Hill. A new opening night record was set when approximately 2300 people viewed the lighting display. Mayor James Morrow; J.F. Buchanan, District Deputy Governor of Lions; Lions president Charles Toller; and other club officials took part in the opening ceremony. Traffic was heavy on the narrow road but no accidents were reported.
- 1953 Another fund drive in 1953 enabled the club to add four new scenes to the display, bringing the total to twenty. The City of Bethlehem was publicized in the December issue of New Mexico Magazine. Four pages of photographs by Daniel Sheehan of the House of Photography were featured.
- 1954 The City of Bethlehem tableau was moved back to Climax Canyon, which is now its permanent home, in 1954. The Range noted that “no cash drive is being made this year, but that the club will welcome contributions.” Mayor Floyd Atchison lit the 1954 display and commended the club for “providing the community with such an outstanding holiday attraction.”
After more than thirty years of use, the air-brushed scenes designed and constructed by commercial artist Woody Ballard began to show signs of wear and tear. In 1982 Mullings and his daughter Gail (Mullings) Cimino, took on the monumental task of replicating the Nativity artwork. Mullings says, “The original paintings were weather beaten and scratched and in sad shape. The Lions Club decided to see if they could repaint them, but we had no one in mind. We held a fundraiser and we offered a $1000 to have someone paint the City of Bethlehem scenes. I personally didn’t want to tackle that; it seemed like an awesome job. My daughter Gail came home from her freshman year at the University of New Mexico, wanted a summer job and she put in an application. As it turned out it was the only application that we got and being a member of the Lions Club I volunteered to go ahead and work with her.”
The Mullings father/daughter team painted at the former ARF Products Capulin plant building, which was vacant at the time. He continues, “We just stacked all the scenes in there and the Lions themselves would lay them down and trace them on the plywood and they’d cut the plywood with a saber saw in the right shape. Then we stood up the old one, looked at it and painted the new one. That was a full summer’s job.” The scenes were painted with acrylic paint. As the scenes were completed, they were sprayed with clear acrylic for protection from the elements.
Mullings continues to use his artistic talents to refurbish Nativity scenes that are showing signs of deterioration, and has on occasion painted a few Toyland characters, including Sponge Bob Square Pants. Another club member, Arlin Swank, works with Mullings on the restoring of scenes.
The Toyland characters that are displayed along both sides of Apache Avenue leading the way to the City of Bethlehem, have been creative contributions from the community, including individuals, school clubs, and businesses. The back of each Toyland character is signed by the artist or artists.
Toyland characters have revolved over the years, but only one has been “retired” according to Mullings. Complaints from citizens were made about “Darth Vader” being inappropriate for the Christmas season and it was withdrawn from the display. Mullings quips, “There are a number of characters that have gone away, like E.T. and Sponge Bob Square Pants. They’re too popular and they get new homes!”
The City of Bethlehem is housed in various outbuildings in Climax Canyon. When mid November rolls around the Lions and the city workers know the routine for a smooth assembly of the Christmas exhibit. Mullings explains, “The first thing is all the weeds and the growth that occurs on the Climax road has to be cleared. That’s usually done by a city road grader; then all the scenes are taken out and parceled out to the different areas that they need to go and the Lions themselves handle that as much as they can. Finally, the city crews are enlisted to do some of the heavy duty work and without them we’d be in a big mess.”
For many years the Lions Club members and interested citizens put up the display. In the early times there was a Lions Auxiliary, comprised of wives of the Lions, who provided lunch for the volunteers. Now that the organization has dwindled to fifteen members, the actual setting up is in the hands of the small group of Lions and the city employees. “It’s a struggle to put it up, and without young healthy bodies it cannot be done, which poses the question of recruiting for the Lions Club new members that can handle it. I’ve often wondered when we are going to be unable to do that anymore. That’s my biggest concern about the City of Bethlehem,” Mullings states.
Repairs and replacements are ongoing problems with the display, due to weather damage and at times vandalism. Another costly problem is replacement of bulbs in the floodlights. Support from the community, via fundraisers and monetary contributions from civic-minded individuals, businesses and organizations, enable the Lions to maintain the display. An added benefit is that electrical power used for the display is furnished free of charge by the Raton Public Service Company.
In a 1951 article in The Range Woody Ballard summarized the theme of the City of Bethlehem, “Let this place be a tribute to the Savior’s birth. Let the story be painted in the truest of form, and the story written in the simplest of words so even the smallest child could understand. Let the story be a respecter of all creeds, so that all religions could be a part of the worship of His own nativity.”
In 2015 the City of Bethlehem continues, without commercialism, to be a simple, gentle reminder of the true meaning of Christmas, reflecting the theme as stated by Woody Ballard. It has become one of Raton’s most cherished Christmas traditions. Mullings says, “It’s expected. I’ve talked to so many people that have made trips through the City of Bethlehem all through their childhood and adulthood and they continue to do that. Many people revere that opportunity to drive through.”
Photos/Illustrations are courtesy of Jim Mullings, Ann Marie Rigdon, and Arthur Johnson Memorial Library.