The Nativity display inside Immaculate Heart of Mary Roman Catholic Church in Parkville is not set in the traditional stable. Instead, every year parishioners build a grotto, fashioning realistic-looking boulders from hundreds of brown paper grocery bags.
"People come from all over to take pictures," said parishioner Bob Mrozinski. "They don't believe it is made out of bags."
While the birth of Christ is traditionally said to have occurred in a stable, the church's 15-foot-high shopping-bag cave might be a more authentic depiction, some say.
"Two thousand years ago, they didn't have mangers like we see on postcards today," said the display's creator, Elias Shomali, who was born near Bethlehem and has lived in the United States for 40 years. "They used to keep animals in caves, so maybe the Christ child was born in a cave."
While Scripture makes no specific reference to a cave for the birth of Christ, the concept makes sense, said Monsignor Stuart Swetland, vice president for Catholic identity at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg and frequent traveler to the Mideast.
"We know Mary and Joseph had no place to stay and had to go where there were animals," he said. "That would have been a cave with maybe a wooden structure built at its front."
Shomali, a retired banker, has organized the effort at the Parkville church since 1993. "I carried the idea from my homeland in Palestine," he said. He has built similar displays for other churches, convents and the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington.
He said the construction material is as available as the nearest grocery - in this parish's case, 250 bags were donated by Giant and Mars stores.
Volunteers cut out the bag bottoms and crumpled and stapled them together in long rows - with grocery logos on the side that does not show. It took a day and a half to staple the bags to a 15-foot-high wooden frame. The 20-foot-wide roof needed at least 60 bags. The interior and exterior walls and a skirt-like piece that falls to the floor took up the remaining sacks, with the cave floor covered in straw.
The Nativity is at a side altar, low enough for visitors to kneel and pray, and Mrozinski encourages people to touch the rocks and snap photos.
For a keepsake, people often remove a strand of straw, which volunteers replace until dismantling the scene in mid-January.
"We live in a world infused by technology, with 3-D animation of everything and where everything is fake," said Ra'id Shomali, Elias' nephew. "To build a crib like this to remind people brings a real sensibility to the world. At Christmas, we should go back to the basics and what really matters."
He and other volunteers spent most of Thursday and Friday following directions of where and how to staple.
"Puff it out more, before you staple," his uncle told the volunteers. "We have to make this look like a cave."
Once the crinkled bags were in place, they were painted - brown to simulate rocks, green for moss and black to look like walls made sooty by fires.
Statues, which many say date to the church's founding 60 years ago, re-create the Nativity scene. A shepherd, carrying a lamb, stands nearby as Mary and Joseph contemplate an empty crib. The grotto will be blessed and the infant added on Christmas Eve. The Magi will complete the scene Jan. 6, the feast of the Epiphany.
The display is open to the public in conjunction with the daily Mass schedule at the church, 8501 Loch Raven Blvd.
St. Francis of Assisi revived devotion to the creche in the 13th century, when he re-enacted the Nativity in a cave, Swetland said.
"It is to remind people of the simplicity and poverty of the birth of Christ," he said.
For Immaculate Heart of Mary parishioners, creating the creche "is a labor of love that we all enjoy doing," Mrozinski said.
"It is so big we can't save it, and it's too large to get out of the church," he said. "We tear it apart and start over the next year."