DURING the year, Jeff Dever works as a genial building estimator. But for four nights each December, he gets to be a gruff Roman general, and boss people around in biblical Jerusalem.
Mr Dever is one of 400 volunteers who tell the story of Jesus in the free outdoor Christmas pageant, Road to Bethlehem.
From humble beginnings in 1995 with fewer than 20 volunteers and a crowd of 700 over two nights, it has turned into a theatrical extravaganza.
This week, 15,000 people are expected to flock to the Seventh-day Adventist Church's convention ground in Central Road, Nunawading. For 3½ hours, groups of up to 140 are guided through eight scenes.
There are three teams of Marys and Josephs and three babies playing Jesus; other people play everyone from tax collectors to angels. There are camels, goats and sheep, and a donkey.
A large support crew look after parking, lighting and props.
Producer and director Crystal Taylor, 29, a youth worker, says walkie-talkies and running around helps the crew keep each scene to six minutes.
Each scene is played about 30 times a night.
She says usually it's all right on the night, although on Monday one of the babies playing Jesus was late, so a baby was borrowed from the crowd.
The event aims ''to bring to life the true story and meaning of Christmas''.
It costs $70,000, funded through sponsorship and donations.
''We do it as a gift to the community,'' Ms Taylor says. ''It's one of the more unique experiences of Christmas.''
The Roman general is one of the most demanding roles. He announces the census to the crowd that sends Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, and escorts the wise men and the crowd to Herod's palace.
Mr Dever, 56, from The Basin, loves donning the breastplate, tunic and helmet.
He puts on a scowl. ''I get really nasty and I say, 'failure to comply will be dealt with … harshly'. It's really good fun.''
His daughter, Grace, 13, played Jesus when she was a baby, but now is one of 30 child actors, playing a street kid.
One of the Josephs, Burwood East draughtsman John Stevenson looks forward to the event all year.
''So many families come along; you can see the enjoyment they get out of it.
''I find it a real privilege to sit in the manger scene where I get to look at people's faces for a lengthy period of time. A lot of people are deeply moved by what they're witnessing.''
Road to Bethlehem continues on Wednesday and Thursday, 7pm to 10.30pm, however all 15,000 booked tickets have been allocated, and only 300 walk-up tickets per night will be issued.
The story Road to Bethlehem makes its way through Nunawading first appeared on The Age.