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Volume 16, Issue 51 - December 18 - December 24, 2008
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Tails in the Manger

Leaping goats and bucking donkeys disturb the holy night

by Margaret Tearman

Marissa Salvia (right) as Mary and Emily Grace as Joseph are joined by enthusiastic cast-mates, goats Lightning and Cowboy, in Lower Marlboro Church’s living nativity scene.

A donkey and ox for Mary and Joseph, shepherds with their sheep and the three wise men and a camel: All gathered in a stable to celebrate the birth of their savior.

That peaceful scene is reenacted every Christmas season in living nativities. Humans portray their counterparts quietly, but when live animals enter the scene, peace may give way to chaos with jumping goats, bucking donkeys and runaway sheep.

Who’s at the Manger

In the cold December dusk, the nativity scene at Lower Marlboro Church was coming to life. In a shed, Joseph and Mary sat on bales of straw. A penned duck quacked and two chickens clucked. Christmas music rang from a hidden boom box as Jan Heaton, barnyard wrangler, led in additional cast members: two goats, Lightning and Cowboy. Lightning — named for her lightning-fast birth — stayed true to her name. In a flash, she flew up and across Mary’s lap for a seat on the straw. Cowboy, aka the leaping goat of Calvert County, stood by tethered, quietly eating the set.

At Riverdale Baptist Church, the predictably unpredictable animals have been removed from staged performance. But rented sheep and goats and Taco the donkey, on loan from Patuxent Wildlife Sanctuary, still have a place in the manger. Even in that sacred place, they have minds of their own.

“Fox TV usually comes out and puts us on live television,” says Carol Donohue, prefacing a tale of chaos at her church’s large-scale nativity. “One year, my granddaughter Taylor, who was just six years old, was holding the reins of Taco the Donkey.”

With cameras rolling, Taco decided it was time to leave. Taylor wouldn’t let go. She was pulled across the sidewalk and driveway — with a live TV audience along for the ride. Both child and donkey were caught, unharmed, and returned to the nativity scene.

Crossroad Christian Church in St. Leonard gave up live animals four years ago, but not because of their tendency to wander.

“We had responsibility to care for them and prided ourselves on the care we gave them,” says Jan Baxter. “Then several years ago, we didn’t have anybody who could take care of them during the four days of the nativity scene. Because we couldn’t care for them the way we used to, we’ve stopped using them. It’s too bad, because the animals loved the attention, and got plenty of it.”

In Solomon’s, Our Lady Star of the Sea has a living nativity, but no live animals. “We don’t have live animals because we have no way to care for them,” Barbara Sewell told Bay Weekly. “Besides, it’s hard enough to get human volunteers, let alone animal volunteers.”


Menagerie at this Manger

In Lower Marlboro, however, the living nativity takes its character from its menagerie — however unpredictable.

“We take a lot of creative license. We use who we have,” says Heaton. “The mare who pretended she was a camel passed on last year at the age of 33, but we have a miniature mule, Cotton Manna, who pretends to be a donkey with big ears.” At almost 15 years old, third goat Holly Berry is usually better behaved than Cowboy and Lightning.

It’s not only the goats that need stage managing. A few years ago, four large Cotswold sheep escaped.

“We were flagging down cars on Lower Marlboro Road,” recalls Heaton. “People pulled over to help us. It took us a couple of hours to round up those four sheep.” The sheep were booked again this year but were no-shows.

“Their owner, Mary Anderson Lane, spent hours in the back of the trailer trying to coax them onboard,” Heaton says. “Even food wouldn’t tempt them.”

Instead, Freedom Hill Horse Rescue brought two mini-horses to the stable where they were joined by a guinea hen, Orville the one-eyed goose, Mama Goose and Lucky Duck.

“It’s fun, but it’s always a challenge,” Heaton says. “But in all these years, no animals or people have ever been hurt.”


Stable Residents

At Serenity Farm in Benedict, year-round members of the farm family put on the four-year-old living nativity.

“It’s not a drive through,” says Theresa Robinson. “It’s an intimate 15-minute program that incorporates our petting zoo animals and members of our family: my grand daughter is one of the angels. Nearly all the animals in the performance — emus, llama, donkeys and goats — are rescued or brought to our farm by people who can’t afford to keep them.

The llama is a camel stand-in, and a donkey plays a donkey. Two sheep and three goats complete the animal cast. “They come on stage as their part is read,” Robinson says.

Maybe because Serenity Farm animals are grateful for a home, none has yet to escape. Not that an escape would be a big deal here.

“Because we are on a large farm, if one of the animals would have a successful break out, they can’t do much damage or go too far,” says Robinson.

There is no charge for the Christmas program, but donations are welcomed to care for the adopted animals.

“We love putting on the live nativity,” Robinson says. “Being out in the barn with the animals by torch light, telling this story makes me feel so good, and the kids just love it.”

She’s not the only one. “I’ve had so many people tell me that our performance has started their Christmas for them and has put them in the holiday mood,” Robinson says.

Wood Reigns

At Heritage Baptist Church in Annapolis, only one species welcomes the newborn king.

“We use cut-out, plywood animals,” says Everett Golihew II, outreach and education director. “The real ones had to go.”

At Golihew’s former church in Bowie, sheep were borrowed from a neighboring farmer.

“Somebody had to stay with those sheep all night,” says the shepherd. “One night, at 1am, my phone rang: The sheep are escaping.”

The sheep broke through a fence and ran through the neighbors’ yards before they were rounded up two hours later.

“I had to wrestle sheep,” Golihew recalls. “At 120 pounds, they’re not so easy to pick up and carry.”

In Golihew’s experience, animals don’t make for a peaceful nativity.

“One year we had a pony for the donkey,” recalls Golihew. “Mary was sitting on the pony with Joseph holding the reins. We thought the pony was happy — we were giving him carrots — when he bucked off Mary.”

The pony tried to escape, but was returned to the set. Mary was reseated and, for a few minutes, calm was restored.

Then he bucked Mary off again.

The next day, somebody built a plywood stand-in.


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