Nine-year-old Sarah Baldwin, dressed in a purple taffeta dress and a black fur coat, was flanked by her parents as she walked through a scene of snow and 19th century-style street lamps.
As she admired the décor, Christmas carolers dressed in Victorian-era clothing sang holiday tunes. To her right, a vintage sleigh was parked, with a velvet sackful of presents.
It might sound like Sarah had entered a scene from a Charles Dickens novel. In fact, she and more than 200 other children, along with parents and grandparents, had entered the dining hall at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., for the sixth annual Billy Graham Library Teddy Bear Tea.
“Every year, we try to make the tea a little bit different from the year before,” said Sonya Johnson, promotions manager for the Billy Graham Library. “And this year we wanted an old-fashioned Christmas celebration. That’s why we knew we had to bring in The Caroleers for the entertainment, because of their old Victorian-era costumes and their style of singing.”
The Caroleers, an a cappella group from Thomasville, N.C., have been singing together for nearly 20 years. They have performed at a variety of regional events from Christmas at the Biltmore House in Asheville, N.C., to the most recent North Carolina governor’s inauguration.
In addition to the Teddy Bear Tea, they have also performed at Christmas at the Library for three years. Their formula for bringing Christ-based holiday cheer: keep it simple.
“The Gospel of Jesus Christ is so simple a child can understand it. We want it to be that simple, because there are too many complicated things in the world,” said Stephen Storey, leader of The Caroleers.
As The Caroleers sang classic Christmas carols, such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, a little girl mouthed the words of the song as she rang the silver bell ornament, made with a painted miniature clay planter.
The pint-sized guests listened as The Caroleers read Christmas-related Scriptures between songs. They sipped hot chocolate and enjoyed Christmas tree cupcakes, cookies that looked like gingerbread houses and teddy bear tea sandwiches.
Some of them clutched their new plush teddy bears as they swayed to the music.
A Growing Tradition Among Friends and Family
Like Sarah, many of the children have attended the Teddy Bear Tea multiple times. And for others, it has become a way to connect with friends.
Eight-year-old Jackson and his buddy, 7-year-old Nathan, have been coming together for three years. Jackson started coming when he said his grandmother “randomly heard about it” four years ago. He liked it so much that the next year, he invited Nathan to come with him. And so, it has become a tradition for these friends.
“My favorite is the food,” said Jackson.
“And the decorations,” Nathan interjected.
For one local neighborhood, it became a community event: more than 30 children from the development came together.
Some of these children—the ones who have attended since the first annual tea—have started bringing their younger siblings who are now old enough to enjoy the event.
The Teddy Bear Tea: An Outreach
For the Baldwins, the Teddy Bear Tea has been a means of outreach. Every year, they have purchased an extra ticket so they could invite another little girl to attend with Sarah.
This year, the plans with the other child fell through, but that didn’t discourage them.
Next week, Brad, Sarah’s father, plans to treat some colleagues to Christmas dinner at the Billy Graham Library, and then bring them on a tour.
While the Baldwins feel it is important to reach out to friends, family and co-workers, their first order of spiritual business is at home. Ladonna, Sarah’s mother, believes that the Teddy Bear Tea plays a role in the shaping of her daughter.
“We raise Sarah to know the truth; she’s known about the Gospel from birth,” she said. “The Teddy Bear Tea is an extension of our hands and what we’re doing. And she feels right at home here.”