Rather than being made up of wood or plastic figures, a live nativity set has real people and animals instead. These presentations tend to attract visitors from the surrounding community. Some live nativity sets have people posing in static positions, whereas the actors move about, talk or sing in others.
The cast for a live nativity set can be as small as just Mary and Jesus or it can include dozens of people. Additional roles to fill include Joseph, the owner of the inn where Jesus was born, shepherds and angels. Wise men can also be present, although the biblical account suggests they did not historically arrive until a couple years later. Actors should be volunteers from the church who dress up in costumes appropriate to the period. If the live nativity will be staged for more than a couple hours, actors should rotate every hour or two so they do not get tired.
Churches that plan live nativity sets often create the scene on church property. A location that is visible from a busy street will attract the most attention from people who drive through the area. Stack bales of hay around the scene to set it apart from the surrounding landscape. Set up a lighted star above the scene to illuminate it and attract attention. If the church is located in a rural area, consider setting up the nativity set in a real stable.
If possible, borrow animals from a local farmer to include in the live nativity. The stable where Jesus was born might have contained sheep, cattle, donkeys or camels. If using animals, try to keep them in the background so they do not draw too much attention from Jesus. Have all the actors in the nativity scene focus their eyes and attention on Jesus to help visitors focus there as well. Invite onlookers to join in singing familiar Christmas carols, such as "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "Joy to the World" and "Away in a Manger."
Large churches with more volunteers to help with planning and staging the live nativity can create more than one scene relating to the birth of Jesus. For example, a nativity put on by Sherwood Baptist Church had five different scenes, including Isaiah's prophecy of Jesus' birth in the Old Testament. Other scenes portray Mary and Joseph in events leading up to Jesus' birth. This sort of nativity helps put the birth of Christ in context and encourages viewers to consider the event as a fulfillment of God's plan.