Looking for a little animal authenticity this holiday season? Cue the camels.

December 10, 2013

T here’s serious weather rolling in out here on the blustery plains of the Kernstown battlefield. It’s not snowing yet, but it’s windy, and mostly it’s just cold. The three wise men have slipped Hot Hands handwarmers into their gloves. (“You just stick them in and they go? That's nice.”) Nearby, in the talent tent, several teams of Jesuses, Marys and Josephs congregate by space heaters until it is time for their 30-minute rotations in the Follow the Star Christmas pageant.

A capable-looking woman — a chipper, earmuffed brunette — sees a trailer approaching across the muddy field. The back of the trailer has a big white sign:

“NEED CAMELS?”

Out of the cab steps a no-nonsense man with a full white beard and a round belly.

“You have the camels?” the woman asks the man, wrapping her arms around her waist in the wind.

“Yep,” says Keith Wilson. “Are you ready for ’em?”

He unlatches the trailer. Inside are Junior, 14, a two-humped Bactrian with russet fur; Jasper, about 4, a yellow one-humped dromedary; and the 8-month-old baby, whom Wilson just acquired a few weeks ago and who does not yet have a name, though he might get one soon, probably through an Internet contest. The camels are led, amicably, to Bethlehem. In the Bethlehem region of this Civil War battlefield, a bale of hay has been laid out for their consumption.

To call Follow the Star a “living Nativity” would be a disservice to the event, which is actually a seven-stop, multi-costumed tour through the Nativity story: angels, shepherds, Roman soldiers, sheep, goats, donkeys, chickens, fake candles, real fire pits, hundreds of volunteers. During the course of the tour, Mary learns she is pregnant, Joseph panics, and heavenly choirs sing as small tourist groups are led through the two-night-only exhibit.

The finale is camels. People get to the last stop — Jesus is a toddler; the wise men have finally arrived with their gifts — and there the camels are, blinking lazily upon the Christ child, chewing. People love them. There is an audible chuckle every time a new group passes through.

This scene happens everywhere. At holiday spectaculars around the country, there are camels. Ponies? Maybe, but ponies are a summer rental, for children’s birthday parties. Pigs are summer, too — a staple of county fairs. Lambs are for Easter; wild turkeys are for fall. But camels? Camels are for Christmas. To be a camel in December is to be the Santa Claus of the livestock world.

Keith Wilson, 51, never married, no kids, owns Wilson’s Wild Animal Park in Winchester. His parents opened it in the 1970s; he worked there as a teenager and then inherited the family business. They have lions, ostriches, a giant African tortoise, monkeys, among others, and a petting zoo, too. But the zoo closes every year at the end of October, and then Wilson’s income used to stop until the season started up again in spring.

Several years ago, a church called him up during this off season. They were doing a live Nativity scene, and, well, did Wilson happen to rent out his camels? He didn’t then, but he could, he figured, and he still does now.

His camels have appeared in Nativity scenes at churches all throughout the Washington region. His camels have walked in Christmas parades. His camels have stood on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, part of Faith in Action’s annual Christmas demonstration. His camels have been on “Fox and Friends” in New York, although don’t get him started on the complexities of moving a camel across state lines (it involves the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene).

His camels are not, by any means, the only camels in town — an outlet called Ponies To Go, for example, is providing George Washington’s Nativity camel, Aladdin, down at Mount Vernon — but Wilson does have the benefit of owning multiple animals, meaning that for places with the right budget that are searching for the right aesthetic, each of the three wise men can be provided with his own, personal camel. “We have the experience and ability to add that special touch to your event,” his Web site says. “Our Camels are non-denominational, they love everybody!”

This year, Wilson has approximately 20 appearances scheduled during December, sometimes multiple appearances on one day. Before the Follow the Star pageant, his camels marched in the Middleburg Christmas parade, behind a herd of red sports cars, just a bit ahead of Santa.

At first they were situated near some motorcycles, but they didn’t like the noise.

They also don’t like to be too covered up. “The hindquarters like to be free,” explains Richelle Keckley, Wilson’s business partner, who was escorting one of the camels in the parade before the live Nativity.

She took this preference into consideration when sewing the camel costumes, which consist of a fleece blanket topped with a circular tree skirt. “I knew I needed something round, to sort of offset the hump,” she explains.

This is the fourth year of Follow the Star, which is put on annually by the Fellowship Bible Church, and the fourth year that Wilson’s camels have been a part of it.

How it first happened was, a few days before Follow the Star’s original debut, Karen Santmier, the event director, got a call from Wilson. He had seen signs for the pageant around town, and he wondered whether she might like a camel or two to round out the Nativity scene. She told him she would, but had already maxed out her budget. He offered to donate them for one night only, and Santmier gratefully agreed. “That was such a blessing,” she says.

It was also a shrewd move on Wilson’s part, because once the audience had experienced the camels, Follow the Star couldn’t go back.

Ain’t nobody here but us camels, so let’s talk about them.

Camels: Don’t smell as much as you think they would, being barnyard creatures. Their fur is thick and woolly, and it has a mild, grassy odor.

Camels: Make a sound that is slightly moo-like, but infused with more of a groan. They have also been known to bleat or roar.

Camels: Have a silly look about them, a droopy-lipped, two-toed, shambling-gaited absurdity that makes people smile.

Camels: Have a reputation for meanness, which Wilson says is unwarranted. “Honestly, they’re just like people,” Wilson says. “It depends on the personality of the particular camel.” The camels that were bottle-fed as calves grow accustomed to human contact, and may nuzzle just like a horse or dog would. They’re all over him during feeding time.

Wilson owns four camels. The one left at home this weekend is named Sampson. The trouble with Sampson is that he has a personal vendetta against Christian Dall’Acqua, who is Wilson’s nephew and who helps handle the camels. Sampson spits on Dall’Acqua whenever he sees him, which causes a real problem at public events. The addition of the new baby camel makes bookings considerably easier, because the baby seems to have an excellent disposition. Wilson has taken him to three events thus far, and at each one he has been as docile as you please, accepting pats, occasionally grunting. Of the baby, Wilson says approvingly. “I think that’s going to be an exceptional camel.”

Camels: Valuable, classic. “They’d really become the premier mode of transporting goods” by the time of the Nativity story, says Candida Moss, a professor of early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. Their ability to travel quickly — 30 or 40 miles a day with little water — made them more useful than donkeys, the traditional beasts of burden. They do not appear specifically in the Nativity story, but to journey long distances in the desert — as the Magi would have done — there was no better option. This is how camels have ended up in our Christmas Nativity scenes, year after year, swaying their necks down toward the hay bales, while costumed “wise-men assistants” make sure they don’t knock over the heat lamps.

Wilson is a little bit bashful in talking about how much renting a camel costs. It’s a delicate thing. This is his business, and he can’t lose money on it. At the same time, his customers are churches, during one of their most holy times of the year.

You never know what people will be willing to pay, though. One time he was contacted by somebody in Richmond, just desperate. He was embarrassed to quote this lady a price, given that several hours of driving and gas would be entailed (it was more than several hundred dollars), but when he finally did, she agreed as if it was nothing. The camels were that important to her.

Wilson, for his part, sort of gets the appeal and sort of doesn’t. “It’s really cool, the first 10 years or so,” he deadpans. But he’s the one who has to stand nearby in the cold — night after night, Nativity after Nativity — to make sure nothing goes awry.

He’s almost always cutting people breaks, anyhow, charging people less than he means to. It just happens. A couple days ago, another woman phoned him up and told him she’d always dreamed of having a camel at her live Nativity, but really didn’t have a budget to speak of. He offered to send over a sheep, maybe a goat, maybe a donkey, which the Wild Animal Park also has, but she really had her heart set on a camel.

He shakes his head back and forth, standing a few feet away from where baby Jesus — played at this moment by a little girl named Grace — is laughing at Junior the camel.

He’ll probably end up giving the latest caller a deal on a camel. Might as well, if he’s going to give her a sheep or whatnot anyway, and he’ll already be making the trip. Dangit, he just might end up doing that.

“GNUGGGGGGH,” Junior says.

It’s Christmas, after all.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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