The Nativity productions range from about 70 actors and support workers in Mill Hall, Pa. -- population 1,375 -- to a $40,000 extravaganza with a giant, holographic Angel Gabriel at the Seventh-day Adventist Church's headquarters in Silver Spring, Md.
The shows, many of which are free, can seem like a Christmas pageant crossed with a Renaissance fair. The streets of Bethlehem may be on a covered parking lot like Emmanuel's, or outdoors at a former truck stop in Hammond where Calvary Christian Center puts on "One Night in Bethlehem." Others, like that put on at the Seventh-day Adventist headquarters, are indoors.
In Calvary's Nativity scene, church members play not only shepherds, Herod, Jesus and Mary, and assorted angels but Roman centurions, shop owners, and other townspeople who talk with visitors.
Tom Davis sells granite countertops for a living from his business by day, but during Calvary Christian's Nativity re-enactment in Hammond, he is Darius the centurion, resplendent in a red cloak and red-crested helmet. "This is Bethlehem. There is a census tonight and there is a big crowd of people coming. I must keep order," he said, in character.
The best thing about playing this role, he said later, was making children laugh. "It's just great to be taking part in a production the whole community can enjoy," he said.
The event, now in its third year, has brought in some new members. But the churches say they just want to honor the meaning of Christmas -- not increase numbers.
"The main purpose of this show is outreach," Adventist spokesman Garrett Caldwell said. "It's not just entertainment. It's a ministry."
In Pennsylvania, members of Mill Hall Church of Christ, which averages about 115 people at Sunday services, worried their early December event might be seen as frivolous during the tough economic times, director Candice Packer said.
"We prayed, 'Let this be a good outreach,"' she said.
It was, she said, citing a letter from a woman who said her 9-year-old grandson "talked about it all night, talked all the next day, he called his grandmother and said, 'Grandma, you need to go!' He called his aunt and uncle and said, 'You need to go!"'
Some of the churches that put on the shows don't seek donations, but Calvary does -- at the tax collector's booth.
"We will gladly accept your taxes here under Caesar. And if you have no money, we will gladly accept this young man and put him into Caesar's service," Floyd Gilless, playing the character Brutus, tells one family.
On the Net:
o Seventh-Day Adventists HQ: http://www.bethlehemwalk.info/
o Calvary Christian Center, Hammond, La.: http://www.onenightinbethlehem.net/
o Emmanuel Baptist Church, Alexandria, La.: http://www.emmanuelalexandria.org/