The front lawn is the stage, the audience is made up of bundled-up church members fortified with hot chocolate. The cast includes fidgety children and, sometimes, goats, donkeys and sheep.
A handful of churches across the region put on outdoor "live Nativities" in the evenings leading up to Christmas, when community theater meets the faithful on the road to Bethlehem.
The reason, say clergy members across denominations and geographical lines, is that acting out the story, whether in a still life or pantomime, makes the birth of Jesus one night about 2006 years ago more real.
"It gives you a sense of how harsh and rough the circumstances were," said the Rev. Earl Thompson of Friendship Community Baptist Church in southern Anne Arundel County. "Being born in a trough is a hard situation."
His church has been putting on a live Nativity since 2002 under his direction. For two hours on three evenings, ending tonight, visitors can watch the cast of 20 posing amid scattered hay.
The only speaking part goes to an angel who unfurls a parchment and reads a portion of Luke three times over the course of the evening.
St. Francis of Assisi is commonly thought to have staged the first live Nativity, with animals, in a cave in Italy on Christmas Eve in 1223, acting out the manger scene with townspeople.
Today, depending on the church, the event is staged in various ways. One live Nativity might have the actors stand still for a half-hour. In another, they might gesture dramatically for the audience and passing sport utility vehicles as music is played on a sound system.
Twenty, 30, even 40 or more might be involved. Does your 5-year-old want to be an angel? Here is a pair of wings.
Rehearsals are few. The costumes, used from year to year, are often elaborate. Animals are optional. They lend authenticity -- as well as an air of unpredictability.
One year, a goat escaped the live Nativity scene at the First Baptist Church of Crofton, said the Rev. Bob Parsley. It jumped the fence and ran across the street.
"I had to go get the goat from the dogcatcher," he said.
The church has kept its faith in goats, this year borrowing a few from local farms for its production, which runs tonight and tomorrow.
"Many of these children have never touched a farm animal before," Parsley said.
In New Windsor in Carroll County, St. Paul's United Methodist Church uses live animals, and only the Mary, Joseph and Jesus characters. "Children love to pet the animals," Joanne Hillary, the church office secretary, said. "And people are seeking something more personable."
Faith Lutheran Church in Eldersburg can boast not only live sheep but also a live baby. A hardy child, resistant to the elements, must be volunteered.
"The play is a big deal here," parishioner Judy Fischer said.
Speakers and microphones are set up on the grounds, with 50 people participating and about 500 in the audience during the two performances."
In the more urban zone of Annapolis' Heritage Baptist Church, no animals are in the pageant, which wrapped up last night. The infant Jesus makes no sound in the manger -- the star role is played by a doll. But the large cast's enthusiasm and the accompanying music -- Christmas carols and excerpts from Handel's Messiah -- make up for missing animals.
Natalie Green, 18, daughter of the church's pastor, looked bright-eyed as she poured free hot chocolate and offered sugar cookies at an outdoor table. For her, there was a clear reason for being at the pageant, which stretches back to times when many Christians were illiterate and were told or re-enacted stories from the Bible.
"Some people are more visual learners," she said. "This kind of thing helps."
On Wednesday night, state government employee Mary Hatfield played Mary for the third time, wearing tennis shoes under desert garb. Rob Saulz, a sales manager, was a solemn Joseph. Just about everyone wanted to be a Wise Man, but a bearded facilities manager had dibs on that red-robed role.
"I love the inclusiveness of this congregation and this cross-generational event," Cindy Busch said. "As I get older, it just settles in that you want to celebrate the holiday without losing the message: care and love and compassion."
Katie Eyre, 22, of Glen Arm has participated in the live Nativity at Baldwin's Union United Methodist Church nearly every year since she was the baby Jesus.
After holding the starring role, she portrayed an angel, was promoted to angel Gabriel in fifth grade and a year later played Mary. She has been the mother of Jesus ever since.
"I have gone through quite a few Josephs," said Eyre, now a senior at Villa Julie College.
The cast size varies from year to year. Live sheep always participate, and one year they had a Clydesdale horse.
The Nativity, held this year on Dec. 9, gives Eyre an opportunity to contemplate the message of Christmas, she said. "I start to get into the Christmas spirit when I do my Nativity," she said. "It officially brings in the season for me."