Live animals bring Christmas story to life
MIDDLEBURY — On Christmas Eve a Middlebury church will host its most unusual parishioners of the year, as Smarty, Jackson, Sven, William Tell and Lulu take their place in St. Stephen’s eagerly awaited Christmas pageant.
No, they are not children, although the worship hall on the town green will be full to bursting with young people playing parts in the story of the first Christmas — shepherds, sheep, angels, Mary, Joseph, cows, a tiger, mice, a kangaroo and even a bunny or two.
These are four-legged actors playing key parts in the Christmas story.
Smarty, a shaggy “barrel on legs” of a miniature horse, performs as the donkey that carried Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. Jackson, a curious and reporter’s notebook-nibbling Nigerian pygmy goat, will appear as himself. Of course. Alpacas Sven and William Tell — appropriately regal in brown and cream — will be portraying the camels of the Three Wise Men. And Luna, a very determined Corgi and self-appointed “barn manager,” will make her debut in a sheep costume. Expect her to bark and herd everyone and everything in sight. That dog means business!
Having live animals at the Christmas pageant has been a tradition at the Episcopal church since the 1980s, said parishioner Cathy Walsh, who’s been a part of the live animal tradition for decades.
“Through the eyes of a child, to see the Christmas story enacted with real live animals, makes it so immediate. They’re just so honest and real,” said Walsh.
The New Haven resident brought her own animals to the pageant for many years and more recently has taken on the job of coordinating the animal end of the Christmas pageant. This year’s menagerie of star performers is owned by Tamar Begley, who’s been bringing denizens from her well-stocked barn in Weybridge to the St. Stephen’s Christmas pageant for the past six or seven years. Come Christmas Eve, Begley and Walsh will be wrangling animals, with help from Susan Veguez of Cornwall, Molly Withers of Ripton, Anabel Hernandez of Bridport, Gail Zuck of New Haven, and Walsh’s daughter Emily.
At around 2:30 p.m. on the 24th, the team will load the animals into a livestock trailer, drive to Middlebury, park at the Marble Works and then herd their performers across Main Street.
Heads usually turn, said Walsh and Begley, as people on the street stop to pet the animals and ask why they’re coming to town. One year a passerby fell so in love with the animals that she followed them inside and stayed for the whole pageant.
As each animal waits outside the church for his or her cue, the wranglers stand patiently with them in rain, snow, sleet or hail.
Walsh and Begley find young shepherds who want to walk in with Jackson and Luna, the goat and dog. The wranglers help Mary get up on Smarty. And Begley leads the newly minted “donkey” into the sanctuary as Joseph walks beside. Finally, the Wise Men will follow that star, leading their camel-pacas.
A LONG HISTORY
While St. Stephen’s has been bringing local animals to church on Christmas Eve for at least 30 years, the tradition itself is far older.
St. Francis of Assisi is credited with staging the first live Nativity in 1223, in the little town of Grecio, Italy. Francis was visiting the town to celebrate a midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and needed a larger venue, so he set up shop outside in the town square. Like Walsh and like many of Vermont’s animal lovers, Francis knew that live animals would give him a direct line to people’s hearts and bring the Christmas story to life. As related by his biographer Giovanni di Fidanza (also known as St. Bonaventure), Francis “prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed” to celebrate the Babe of Bethlehem.
Francis’s idea proved to be a big hit and started, many believe, the whole tradition of Nativity pageants, live Nativity scenes, and Nativity sets large and small, from the exquisitely crafted Baroque mega-villages found in museums across Europe to the cheap set you can still buy at Kmart to the hotly contested life-size municipal manger scenes being picketed and protested across America.
Bonaventure reports that, standing at the manger, Francis and his hearers were transported that Christmas Eve.
St. Stephen’s goes one better on St. Francis’s ox, ass and manger full of hay by traditionally including a live infant. This reporter distinctly remembers watching the pink-slippered feet of her now 12-year-old, kicking out from underneath Baby Jesus’s swaddling clothes.
St. Stephen’s will likely be packed, as always, to hear the Christmas story and watch the kids and animals.
Walsh and her crew of wranglers will be prepared:
“We always come with a stable fork and a muck bucket.”
Editor’s note: Gaen Murphree is a parishioner at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].
LUNA PATROLS THE Weybridge barn that houses many of the animals that will be used for the St. Stephen’s Church Christmas pageant Thursday. Luna will be dressed as a sheep for the pageant.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell