The lunchroom at Opportunity Village's Engelstad Campus looks like a high school lunchroom circa Long-Ago A.D., complete with all the usual lunchroom cliques.
A squad of Roman soldiers sits at one table. At another table is a flock of angels. At still another, townspeople and shepherds enjoy a bit of modern-day potluck.
In about 15 minutes, this cast of refugees from a History Channel docudrama will walk into a chilly Southern Nevada evening to retell what literally is one of mankind's best-known stories: the birth of Jesus.
They are actors in a Nativity presentation staged by the Las Vegas Redrock Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that closes with performances at 6, 7:30 and 9 p.m. today.
The production features more than 100 actors and an equally large crew, lighting and smoke effects, crafted-from-scratch costumes and even a donkey, a few sheep and four horses. At the focus of the presentation is a story that just about everybody, Christian or not, knows.
Even if, scripturally speaking, the story as most of us know it takes a liberty or two from the source material found in the Gospels.
MELTED NEAPOLITAN ICE CREAM
Think of the Nativity story most of us know -- the one with the shepherds and the wise men visiting an infant Jesus -- as a sort of Christmas pudding. Or, the Rev. Mark Wickstrom suggests, think of it as a bowl of Neapolitan ice cream.
"There are three distinct flavors all in the same box," says Wickstrom, senior pastor of Community Lutheran Church of Las Vegas, 3720 E. Tropicana Ave. "But if you put them in a bowl and let them melt, what happens? You can't separate them."
"What I perceive has happened in most people's understanding of the Nativity is, it's the melted version," Wickstrom says, combining snippets of two separate Gospel accounts with a bit of after-the-fact tradition and "all blended together."
"Most people know the story, but they don't know which story they know," he adds. "They know the blended, melted version."
"It's definitely a big, eclectic pot" forged into a story that, over the span of generations, has become "iconic," says the Rev. Jud Wilhite, senior pastor of Central Christian Church of Las Vegas, 1001 New Beginnings Drive, Henderson .
Most people "know about the baby Jesus being born, and three wise men, and there were some shepherds," Wilhite says. "Those things tend to weave their way into our culture pretty deeply."
In fact, adds Clayton Schmit, a professor of preaching and academic director of the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., "I think, in North American culture, it would be very difficult for someone to grow up and not have a pretty good sense that the birth of Jesus is at the center of Christmas."
But if just about everybody knows at least the broad outlines of the story, its details provide perfect fodder for a spirited edition of "Nativity Jeopardy."
For instance, true or false: All four Gospels tell the story of the Nativity, and all four Gospels cover the same ground.
Answer: False and falser. Actually, only two Gospels, the Books of Luke and Matthew, tell the Nativity story, and the narrative most of us know borrows from both.
"Each of the Gospels had a certain emphasis," explains the Rev. Dennis Hutson, pastor of Advent United Methodist Church, 3450 N. Rancho Drive, which this year premiered a "Bethlehem Village" featuring a live Nativity. "Matthew was writing, really, to the Jews, and that's why he's more concerned with (Jesus') genealogy and that kind of stuff. Luke was writing more to the gentiles."
That, Hutson continues, is why the two Gospels' Nativity accounts vary, with each including or emphasizing some points -- such as the stage time given to Mary and Joseph -- and not including or de-emphasizing others.
The traditional story most of us know also includes a few things not actually stated in the Gospels but which, through tradition and time, have become ostensible "fact."
For instance: How many wise men were there?
Answer: Nobody knows, because the number isn't mentioned in the Book of Matthew, the only book in which they appear.
"So it could have been 12 wise men or two," Schmit says, and the tradition that the wise guys were a trio probably stems from the three gifts -- gold, frankincense and myrrh -- the book says they brought.
Also, that "We Three Kings of Orient are ..." stuff? The book says nothing about them being kings, either.
In Matthew's account, "he calls them a term translated from the Greek that is sometimes called 'Magi,' " Schmit says. "But, essentially, they were astronomers. They were learned people who spent their time looking at the heavens for portents in the sky."
By the way, Schmit adds: "They were from 'the East.' We don't know what 'the East' means, but it could have been Babylon or what have you."
Some Christian traditions even have given the wise men names (Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior, although spellings vary). Their names don't appear in scriptural accounts, but Wickstrom says naming them may have helped to make them, and the Nativity story itself, more memorable to what was, in early Christianity, a largely illiterate community of believers.
Another true-or-false question: Jesus was, just as it shows in all of those Nativity displays, an infant when the wise men dropped by.
Answer: Maybe, but the scriptural accounts leave room for doubt by noting that King Herod -- the bad guy of the Nativity story -- ordered boys ages 2 and younger killed in an effort to eliminate Jesus.
That Herod set his upper limit at 2 years of age indicates either that Herod is "hedging his bets, or there is a time lag" between Jesus' birth and the wise men's arrival, Wickstrom says.
One can "build a pretty strong case historically and biblically that the Magi weren't there on Christmas night. The Magi probably came within about a two-year period of the birth of Christ," Wilhite suggests.
RIDDLES MADE MEMORABLE
The familiar Nativity story is packed with all sorts of trivia and historical riddles. But it's also possible that it's just these sorts of questions and seeming contradictions that have made the Nativity story so vivid, so memorable and so well-known to so many people over so many generations.
While serving as an Air Force chaplain in Italy, Hutson once saw a display of Nativity creches -- carved wood and ivory figures like you would find under a tree or on a mantel -- from around the world. Looking at the wise men figures, he noticed that "they looked like the people who sculpted them."
"You get a chance to see the significance of the Nativity and what it means to so many people all over the world," Hutson says. In the same way, "each family, each culture, has built a tradition around the basic story so it has more meaning for the person."
In the end, the details probably don't matter anyway. What is important, says Dr. R. Jeffrey Parker, president of the Redrock Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is that audiences "feel the spirit of the presentation, which is the spirit of Christ, and I think they do feel some of that."
The goal is "to simply try to bring people closer to Christ, and try to help them focus on Christmas, and try to increase their faith, and help them more completely and more deeply understand his message and his mission," Parker says.
Kam Brian, who portrays Joseph in the LDS presentation, says what's been most memorable for him is "the reaction we get when we get on stage. It's surprising how emotional the reaction is. People are really awestruck or touched by the whole thing."
Count Daniela Barragan, 11, among them. Barragan, after catching a Spanish-language presentation, called it "marvelous, because it teaches us about how Christ was born, because we couldn't see it in person."
Contact reporter John Przybys at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0280.