Angels with white-feathered wings and hands folded in prayer, shepherds with wooden staffs and three kings cloaked in gold and carrying gifts knelt beside Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus as "Silent Night" was sung in Spanish. The baby, 4-month-old Jose Nico Mendez, of Egg Harbor City, smiled sweetly from the wooden manger as adults gathered around, snapping photos on their cellphones and iPads.
The Hispanic members of St. Nicholas Church in Egg Harbor City held the church's annual Three Kings celebration Sunday. It included a buffet of ethnic foods and the performance of the three kings' presentation of gifts to baby Jesus by some of the its Sunday school students.
Kathy Garcia, St. Nicholas' longtime Hispanic Sunday school coordinator, has been putting together the annual Three Kings performance with the children for about 40 years.
This year, her granddaughters, Victoria, 7, and Alexa Llanos-Garcia, 8, of Mays Landing, performed as angels. Years ago, Kathy's daughter, Yolanda, the girls' mother, performed the same role.
"To me, it's a generation thing," Kathy said. "And it's not only my family - like the baby Jesus, that's the grandson of one of our other longtime church members, Patricia Mendez, and years ago, she pushed her son, (Jose E. Mendez), the baby's father, to be in the play."
The purpose of the celebration, one of the many events put on by the church's Hispanic congregation throughout the year, is to pass down the religious traditions to younger generations.
"If I stop doing this, and the kids don't come here anymore, our children are going to start losing their faith. They're going to start losing the real meaning behind Christmas," Garcia said.
Christmas is "Jesus' birthday," said Kathy Garcia's granddaughter, Victoria.
Yesenia Ramiriz-Cortazar, 9, who performed the role of Mary, said the event "is like a little Christmas."
Every Sunday, St. Nicholas has Spanish-spoken Mass at 10 a.m. The church is also one of few in the area to offer Sunday school in Spanish, Garcia said.
The Sunday school classes and events are held in the basement of the vacant St. Nicholas school building, which sits behind the church.
Garcia said the church has fought to maintain the use of the school building, which closed in 2008 and is owned by the Camden Diocese, and so far it has been successful, but she worries it will one day lose the building.
"I always say, 'Please God, let me hit the lottery or get money, so that I can buy this building,'" she said. "We need (the building) so our kids can say, 'I used to have CCD there, and now I want my kids to go here."
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