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Camels and cows and sheep, oh my: How live Nativities turned into controversial extravaganzas

Historical reenactors in the Liberty Counsel's Live Nativity ceremonial procession around the Supreme Court in mid-December. (Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/REX)

Three years before his death in 1226, Francis of Assisi traveled to central Italy to spend Christmas in hilly Greccio. Tired and ill, he asked a friend to build a grotto and then used it to create a Nativity scene: a straw-filled manger and two live animals.

“On Christmas night, the townspeople gathered by torchlight to contemplate the scene,” wrote Augustine Thompson in “Francis of Assisi: The Life."

History and legend can be difficult to untangle when it comes to Christmas traditions. Francis, the medieval saint known for his love of animals and the outdoors, is largely credited as the spark for the live Nativities prominent in celebrations worldwide.

“He is generally considered the first to create a creche of any kind,” Thompson, who teaches history at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, Calif., said in an email. “His had only two live characters — the ox and the ass. The Christ child was an icon.”

Live Nativities at churches today range from humble to extravagant and can include camels, cows, donkeys or sheep as well as a cast of people playing Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels and Magi.

“We make it our Christmas card to the community,” said the Rev. Jackie Brem of Second Baptist Church of Odessa, Tex., which has been hosting a live Nativity since 1951. “During the display we broadcast a reading of the Scriptures.”

Because of Francis of Assisi, thousands of tourists travel to Greccio annually for the live Nativity put on by locals and to visit nearby Franciscan shrines. Pope Francis made a surprise visit there in 2016.

Two years earlier, the pope visited a live Nativity at the Church of St. Alfonso Maria dei Liguori on the outskirts of Rome that featured 200 costumed participants, numerous farm animals and a live baby in the role of Jesus.

“A woman dressed as a shepherd placed a small lamb on the pope’s shoulders,” according to the National Catholic Reporter.

Many elements of live Nativities aren’t part of the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ birth, which are found only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Both accounts say Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but differ significantly on other details.

An angel appears to Mary and to shepherds in Luke, but only to Joseph in Matthew. In Luke, the newborn Jesus is visited by the shepherds, but in Matthew, he’s visited by wise men. Matthew never says how many Magi visited Jesus, but since they brought three gifts — gold, frankincense and myrrh — they’ve been traditionally described as “three wise men.”

A tiny church. A cold night. And the true meaning of Christmas at a live Nativity.

Some Christians insist the differences in the Gospel accounts aren’t important. No two writers ever tell a story the same way, they say. While some embrace the accounts as literal truth, others say the stories theologically true, but not necessarily factually accurate in every detail.

“The issue of the factuality of the birth stories is recent, the product of the last few hundred years,” wrote religion scholars Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan in “The First Christmas: What The Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Birth.”

“In the earlier centuries, their factuality was not a concern for Christians,” they wrote. “Rather, the truth of these stories (including their factual truth) was taken for granted. "

Rev. Bill Van Oss, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Duluth, Minn., said manger scenes, whether a creche, a Christmas pageant or a live Nativity, “mash together the accounts in Matthew and Luke, so you end up with Magi and shepherds together in the scene.”

“They bring together all the facets of the Gospel accounts is a way that captures the spiritual meaning of Christmas,” he said. For many years, his church put on a live Nativity outdoors until it became too difficult in the state’s subzero temperatures. Now, they host an indoor pageant.

Animals at live Nativities are popular, especially among children, but in the modern era, they’ve become controversial. Last year, a cow named Stormy twice escaped a live Nativity at Old First Reformed Church of Christ in Philadelphia. The Hereford was safely recovered, though at one point, highway lanes were shut down. This year, the church isn’t hosting a live Nativity, but set up a “refugee” nativity scene to raise awareness about immigration issues.

Ernie the camel wasn’t so fortunate. After fleeing a Nativity show staging area at Maryland’s Kent Island United Methodist in 1997, the 6-foot, 600-pound Arabian camel was struck by a station wagon and killed.

John Di Leonardo, a spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said his organization advocates leaving animals out of live Nativities. “Live Nativity displays are anything but merry for the animals who are subjected to strange noises and activity — and people trying to touch them.”

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Neither Gospel account of Jesus' birth mentions animals, except for the flock watched over by shepherds. Because Luke described a manger, Christians assumed that meant a stable with animals. And they assumed the Magi traveled by camel. The image of an “ox and ass” became prominent, in part, because of passages in the Hebrew Bible that Christians believe foretold of Jesus’ birth.

“The ox knows it owners, and the donkey its master’s crib,” reads a verse in the Book of Isaiah.

In his book, “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “Christian iconography adopted this motif at an early stage. No representation of the crib is complete without the ox and ass.”

Latino communities mark Las Posadas, usually a nine-day Advent tradition that involves reenacting Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter in Bethlehem. It often includes a street procession with “Mary” riding a donkey and knocking on doors, songs and Bible readings.

Sometime events take on political overtones. In downtown Chicago this month, an outreach of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago hosted “Posada in the Loop.” The event compared the struggles of Mary and Joseph to immigrants today.

“Who are the Josephs and Marys of our country?” Elena Segura, a coordinator in the archdiocese’s immigration ministry, asked the crowd, which then prayed for migrants, according to the Chicago Tribune.

In Washington, the Liberty Counsel, led by conservative Christians, sponsored an annual living Nativity procession around the outside of the Supreme Court in mid-December. Participants dressed as shepherds, wise men, Mary and Joseph were accompanied by sheep, donkeys and a camel.

Mat Staver, counsel founder, said the event wasn’t political, despite the location and the fact that the council’s website promotes a campaign to “save” Christmas, which includes “encouragement, education — and, if necessary, litigation — to guard our freedom to celebrate Christmas.”

“We show we have a First Amendment right to host a live Nativity,” Staver said. “We want to make a realistic presentation of Christmas. It’s part of the season of celebration.”

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