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Donna Ives and Bonnie Lawrence
Donna Ives and Bonnie Lawrence sell bread in the town market during a dress rehearsal for Experience ... Bethlehem at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Billings East Stake in the Heights on Thursday evening.

Just a few moments after a squad of armored Roman soldiers hassles newcomers as they enter the city, a tax collector shakes them down for their hard-earned cash.

Doesn’t sound like much of a merry Christmas, right?

Wrong.

That is how visitors will be greeted over the next two weekends at a presentation called Experience ... Bethlehem at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Billings East Stake. The event — the product of hundreds of work hours by hundreds of volunteers — is a tour through the streets of ancient Bethlehem and tells the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. Its creators wanted to give guests an idea of what life during those times was like.

“Hopefully they come in and enjoy it,” said co-creator Janine Griffin. “That’s what it’s all about.”

When the tour starts, guests are given a small bag of gold and silver and greeted by Roman soldiers, who hassle them a bit. The next stop is at the tax collectors, who take a bit of the money. A weaving tour through the elaborately designed Bethlehem — which takes up the church’s basketball gym and then some — gives guests a look at the hustle and bustle of the city, complete with costumed actors wandering the streets. There are several places for visitors to haggle over the price of items like bread and fresh fruit.

“It plays on your heart,” said Bonnie Lawrence, who plays one of the bakers. “It takes you back 2,000 years.”

But the highlights, according to co-organizer Karen Butt, are a re-creation of the woman at the well, comforting a weary Mary and Joseph and a detailed live nativity scene.

“We did this five years ago and after people got to the nativity, there were a lot of wet eyes,” she said. “People just stop and think about Christmas and family. It’s really an awesome thing.”

A committee began planning the project last May and had monthly meetings until the first weekend of November. From that point on, its members spent hundreds of hours putting up the intricate set, which includes several dozen hand-painted buildings and specific places and events relating to the birth of Christ.

It even has a representation of a Jewish synagogue, complete with authentic yarmulke and shawls and children playing with dreidels. Butt said they consulted a local rabbi to make sure they stored, used and treated all of the items in accordance with the Jewish faith.

When all was said and done, it required as many as 500 people, including about 200 actors and just as many handmade costumes, to complete.

“Sometimes Christmas can get to be so commercialized,” said Norm Dvorak, who plays the innkeeper who turns away Joseph and Mary. “Maybe this can help people understand the importance, that Christ is important in our lives.”

“This isn’t just for adults,” Butt said. “It’s for the entire family.”

 

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What:Experience…Bethlehem, a re-creation of the ancient city during the time of the birth of Jesus Christ, featuring elaborate sets and hundreds of costumed actors.
When: 6-9 p.m. today, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; noon-8 p.m. Saturday and Dec. 12; 6-9:30 p.m. Dec. 11.
Where: The Church of Jesus Chris of Latter-day Saints Billings East Stake, 1640 Broadmoor Lane, in the Heights just off of Wicks Lane.
The presentation is free and tickets aren’t required. Group tours, consisting of 15 to 20 people, will begin every 15 or 20 minutes and last about a half hour.

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