Under a hazy sliver of moon, after a cold day of rain and wind, Mary and Joseph and the Three Wise Men gathered Saturday on Zinfandel Drive.
It was the first of the three nights this holiday season that the United Methodist Church of Rancho Cordova's living Nativity scene brought light to the darkness in what amounts to a real-life Christmas card to the community, a gift that has spanned a generation.
And Alice Haas, the 68-year-old church volunteer who founded the living Nativity display in 1981, was there, bundled in a rain jacket and gazing in pride at her daughter and son-in-law Martha Haas and Steve Kremesec, playing Mary and Joseph for a one-hour shift as well as her young granddaughters, an angel and a shepherd.
For three decades, Alice Haas supervised the display. Every year, she recruited the actors generally, volunteers from the congregation and sewed the costumes. She wrangled the animals. Most of all, she answered visitors' questions.
"I always ask people, 'Do you remember the story?' " said Haas, a retired registered nurse. "If they don't, then I tell them. The story is what's important."
This year, in fragile health after a bout with cancer two years ago, she was on hand during the living Nativity displays but for the most part, she remained out of the cold in the church community hall, where she and other volunteers warmed up food for participants and visitors.
And her youngest daughter, Stephanie Haas-Tan, supervised the living Nativity scene in her place.
"This is my Christmas," said Haas-Tan, 39, who teaches math at Valley High School. "I wouldn't know what to do with myself anywhere else.
"This is our Christmas tradition for all of us in the church."
On the church's soggy front lawn, an audience of several dozen people admired the living Nativity and took photos with their smartphones. A wise man in a long robe knelt before Mary, unintentionally revealing the bright red soles of his athletic shoes. Cupcake, the donkey from the nearby Hagan Park petting barn who, in past years, has occasionally not been in the mood to get off his handler's truck stood placidly on the straw.
For Haas, long a driving force behind many of the church's other outreach efforts, the living Nativity scene is also a reminder that Christmas is when the work of the church begins that is, the practical business of putting faith into action.
"I want people to know there's hope," she said. "There's no beginning or end in Christmas. But you've got to make the leap from the conceptual part to your heart. That's what we'd like to happen at Christmas, for people to get the heart part."
Haas and her daughter remember decades' worth of living Nativity scenes from Christmases past. Many years ago, said Haas, a tough-looking visitor in biker regalia turned out to be the father of one of the Boy Scouts helping that evening. She asked the man if he'd like to be Joseph, and he agreed.
"We put the costume on him," she said, "and he said, 'And I've got my Camels right here,' patting his sleeve. I asked his wife if she wanted to be Mary, and she did. She was really touched. It was one of the most precious times ever."
"Being involved is the important thing," said Haas-Tan.
"Another time, the same group brought coolers and lawn chairs," said her mother. "Mostly, people come by and leave. But they looked at it as a sporting event tailgating at the Nativity scene."
And that was OK, too.
"Everybody comes at a different level," said Haas. "You don't assume anything or condemn any level of understanding. God takes us the way we are."
The living Nativity display has connected the 100-member church with the surrounding neighborhood of apartment complexes and modest suburban houses, said the church's pastor, the Rev. Tina Ballagh.
"They're our neighbors," she said. "Their children grew up coming by and being visitors. It's really touched their lives.
"Having people portray the story and meet the community was a dream that Alice brought to us. She had a vision and a message."
Haas also had a long history with the Methodist Church, one that began early.
Born Alice Avett, she was the daughter of a Methodist preacher in North Carolina. Her mother played the organ in church for 60 years. The family was musical her brother's sons are leaders of The Avett Brothers band but to her, faith also meant service.
After she and her husband, Tom Haas, a civil engineer, moved to Sacramento with their three daughters in the late 1970s, they joined the Rancho Cordova church. Alice Haas began looking for ways to make a difference in the community.
She spent years organizing youth group activities and initiating missions to help with disaster relief, including a trip to Louisiana after Katrina and another this summer to Alabama to help tornado victims rebuild their houses.
"I've always felt we're intertwined," she said. "That's what it's all about."
An accomplished seamstress, she worked for years on the church's holiday fair, making quilts to be sold. She has reached out to the homeless, this year initiating the church's weekly free meal to feed the hungry.
"All I've been trying to do is open doors," said Haas. "When something happens, why can't people go? When there's a need, why can't they contribute?"
Carol Good credits Haas for sparking an ongoing activism among church members. For her, that activism began in 1981, when she played Mary during the first living Nativity scene.
"I'd just found out the week before that I was pregnant with our second son," said Good. "I was just giddy. The first Christmas of his life, he was the baby Jesus. Then he was an angel and a shepherd and later, he was Joseph and a wise man.
"You can see the generations go by on Christmas."
RELIGION"I want people to know there's hope. There's no beginning or end in Christmas. But you've got to make the leap from the conceptual part to your heart. That's what we'd like to happen at Christmas, for people to get the heart part." ALICE HAAS