Arleen Spenceley, Special to The Catholic Virginian

In a manger at St. Mark Parish, Virginia Beach, a baby boy smiled while parishioners doted on him.

“It’s not every day you get to meet a baby Jesus,” Rachel Rudman, coordinator of religious formation, said.

Florence Gaffrey, Linda Major (being fitted), MJ Sargent and Lacy Favila (back to camera) get into costume for “One

But St. Mark made it happen at One Starry Night, an event held Dec. 3 for what Father Anthony Mpungu, pastor, said is an important purpose.

“To make sure we understand the meaning of Christmas,” he said.

About 50 volunteers and staff organized the interactive event.

“We transformed our great hall into Bethlehem,” Rudman said.

Upon arrival, visitors received little muslin bags of plastic denarii to use while wandering the ancient city’s streets. The reproduction of Bethlehem featured the census, an inn and a palace. There was also a marketplace.

In exchange for denarii, attendees could sample pita and hummus, dates, grapes and almonds — plus baklava. Atop “Stargazer Hill,” they could create their own stars, which will be used as ornaments to decorate Christmas trees in the commons at St. Mark, Rudman said.

The volunteers “tried to keep it as authentic as possible,” she said.

En route to each station, guests could interact with actors who played shepherds, guards and beggars.

But Rudman said the highlight of One Starry Night was the stable, where the volunteers who played the roles of the Holy Family awaited visitors.

“Most people were very excited to talk with Mary,” she said.

And the experience was intended to draw attendees deeper into Advent.

“As believers, as Christians, we need to find time for what makes the season very important,” Father Mpungu said. “The earlier people begin to think about it, the better for them.”

One Starry Night helped parishioners and guests think about the coming of Christ, Rudman said.

“When we get excited about the coming of Christ, I think it makes us more willing to participate in Advent,” she said. “It makes us more aware of what Advent is: anticipation for Christ’s coming.”

Rudman expected 240 attendees but about 335 showed, she said.

“They know the birth of Jesus is real,” said Father Mpungu.

And now, Rudman said, they’re “prepared for Christmas.”