For about 30 years, cattleman, farmer and catfish farmer Archie Batson and business owner Mary Price would give the town of Wiggins a beloved Christmas gift: A live Nativity scene complete with animals and a human cast.
This year will be a bit different. The Nativity will go on, for three nights instead of the traditional four, next to Price’s business, Southern Office Supply at 228 S. Magnolia Drive. The most important difference is that Batson won’t be there. He died earlier this year at age 74. But his family and Price are holding this year’s event in his memory.
The presentation is Dec. 21-23 from 6 to 8 p.m.
Price isn’t sure exactly how many years the Nativity has been presented, and neither is Batson’s son, Shep.
“It’s around 30 years,” Price said. “Well, I had this business downtown, and I was in the catfish business with him. I was telling him about people coming in the shop and saying, ‘I’ll be glad when this (Christmas) is over’ or ‘You wouldn’t believe how many people I’m having to cook for.’ I told Archie, ‘This is not what it’s all about.’ He had the animals and I could sew, so I said, ‘We need to do a live Nativity.’ So we did it that first year, just jumped in, didn’t plan to do it every year, but we did again the next year and the next.”
And so for two hours for four nights before Christmas, humans and critters would reverently and quietly present the story of the birth of Jesus Christ as people drove by or parked nearby to sit or stand and watch while music played. Batson insisted on reverence from every participant.
“One year, Shep’s wife, Tracy, was there and some onlookers were marveling at how still these two white chickens were staying. She told them, ‘Look, if Archie Batson tells you to sit still, you sit still!’ ” Price recalled.
Batson would sit across the street and watch the whole thing.
“That’s all he would want for Christmas, helping do that,” Shep Batson said. “It meant a lot to him. He would sit across the street and watch from the tailgate of his truck and listen to the music and just watch. He collected some of the most beautiful music over the years to play.”
Scooter, his rat terrier, was his constant companion on those nights.
“I inherited Scooter,” Shep Batson said. “He would ride with my dad to work; he would ride the dozer with him. In fact, he’s right here next to me on the dozer. He was very loyal to Daddy.”
Each afternoon, Archie Batson would load a trailer with livestock to take to the Nativity.
“Cows, chickens, goats, sheep, llamas, a donkey,” Shep Batson counted off the animals. “Everything was live except the baby. It would be too cold for a baby to be out for that long.”
Over the years, the cast and crew have grown. Businesses and church groups contribute volunteers both behind the scenes and as part of the cast. Traditionally, the last night’s cast includes the whole Batson family, except for Shep, who will be handling the animals as well as setting up.
“The minimum number in the cast is 11; I think the most we’ve had is up to 21,” Price said. “You can have as many shepherds and angels as you want. Altogether, we have over 200 people over the four nights, all volunteers.”
Archie Batson’s rule was that cast members stay as still as possible, no matter how cold it was.
“If some of the men were fussy about it, I’d tell them, ‘Just play like you’re in a deer stand, and you’ll be OK,’ ” Price said. “The shepherds were good because they would be around the fire, but the angels can get cold, especially the ones we call the high angels, on pedestals. Those hand and foot warmers come in handy.”
Archie Batson won’t be there in person, but Price and Shep Batson know he will be there in spirit as well as having a more physical presence.
“He had this old truck — a piece of junk, really, but he loved it,” Batson said. “That’s the truck he would park there. We had this poster-size picture of him made, and we’re going to park his truck where he’d usually get and put the picture back there. “He’d probably hate it. He would say he was trying to tell a story and that that is taking away from the story of the Nativity, but I don’t think so.”
“I was telling some of them we’ll all be squalling before it’s over,” Price said.