Animals delight young and old at service

A llama looks on in a candlelit church.
A cow, an alpaca, sheep, a goat and a donkey make themselves at home inside St. Peter, Cobourg during a Christmas Eve service.
 on January 30, 2024
St. Peter, Cobourg

When I heard that our church would be having a live nativity on Christmas Eve, I just assumed – incorrectly, as it turned out – that the service would be held outdoors to allow the stable animals to relieve themselves when the urge came upon them.

I was prepared to stand in the drizzly weather we’d been having, assuming – again, incorrectly – that whatever prayers were offered would be very brief. And, of course, I wanted to see what critters would be there.

The hour-long family service started at 4 p.m. inside the church sanctuary. As we entered, my nose detected a definite barnyard odour, which became stronger as we approached the pews near the front.

In the place where the grand piano usually sits lay a straw-covered tarpaulin surrounded by a low wire fence. In this enclosure a multitude of farm animals either explored their new home or busied themselves ignoring the throngs of fascinated churchgoers who, like us, approached the beasts with curiosity and amazement.

The most obvious of these was Striker, a deep brown alpaca who stared imperiously at the humans making a fuss over him. Alpacas are very distant cousins of camels… without the humps. He was joined by Delilah the donkey, two very woolly sheep, a fuzzy miniature cow, what appeared to be a small goat with a light-brown coat, several gorgeous angora rabbits, a host of squealing piglets, a large and boisterous contingent of very small aggressive chickens, and a lone goose. It was crowded!

There was no room for Mary, Joseph or the baby Jesus in a manger. But two women remained with the beasts in the corral, keeping watch as the shepherds did and answering our questions.

As the service began, the Rev. Matthew McMillan asked each parishioner to imitate his or her favourite creature. I love cows, and so I mooed! No one heard me; a cacophony filled the entire building. The prayers and hymns proceeded to a background of various snorts, clucks, honks and other unchurch-like noises. Maybe the beasts were merely echoing what they had just heard from us!

Several times Striker buried his head in the straw, emerging with his face covered in yellowish wisps. He chewed continually during worship, not caring a whit about the effect he was having on the parishioners. Delilah stood quietly, deep in thought.

At one pivotal moment, Father Matt left his pulpit and approached the pen. Lifting his robes, he climbed over the barrier. I thought he was going to bless the flock, but he came out with Delilah’s lead in his hand, encouraging her to walk down the aisle toward the back of the church. She was not a willing participant, but she made the best of the situation. A certain irony existed in this stroll. In the bible, we hear of a donkey carrying Mary, who was with child. Apparently Delilah was also pregnant!

When he is not in church, Striker shares a farm paddock with Delilah. He might have been concerned about his friend. Or perhaps the gate in the small fence had been accidentally left open. For whatever reason, Striker made a quick and unexpected exit from his compound. The man seated in front of me reacted with haste, sticking out his arm and stopping the alpaca in his tracks.

One of the handlers quickly arrived to rein in the runaway, and things proceeded almost as planned. The excited children were invited to meet both Delilah and interloper Striker. Squealing with delight, the kids were keen to pat the animals but had to be reminded that alpacas don’t like to be touched on the face or head – neck and shoulder rubs are quite acceptable.

Once the wanderers were back in their pen, candles were lit and we all sang “Silent Night.”

I wonder if the participants had any idea that they had taken part in an historic moment. St. Francis is credited with setting up the very first nativity scene exactly 800 years ago, on Christmas Eve 1223.


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