Even the camels and donkey sense the reverence of their roles at a nativity re-enactment, according to their owners, Jeral and Jenine Williams. The eastern Idaho ranchers and their family host a popular live nativity the second Monday of December near Ucon, north of Idaho Falls.
Throughout December, they also lease out their four-legged family members for nativity productions in southern Idaho and northern Utah. Wherever they go, Jenine said their donkey with Mary and Joseph and the camels carrying the wise men become majestic and proud while performing their roles.
“It’s like they know it’s an honor to participate and do their part to tell the story of Jesus’ birth, the greatest story ever told,” said Jenine, 68. “No matter how many times I’ve seen it, I always feel a sense of peace at the nativities. It’s the best feeling ever.”
She said before a nativity re-enactment starts, people love visiting with their livestock and petting them.
“At the beginning, everyone is chattering away, socializing, and laughing,” Jenine said. “Then, when the program starts, and Mary and Joseph come out of the darkness into the light, the crowd becomes silent. You think of the hardships and joy Mary and Joseph must have felt when Jesus was born. It’s really humbling to think about Jesus’ birth in those circumstances. It gives everyone goosebumps, and there are tears for some people.”
Participating in live-nativity programs is rewarding for the Williams, who raise cattle near Ucon. Several years ago, they provided animals for a nativity their son helped organize, then mostly by word-of-mouth and their Facebook page, Camels R Fun. The annual event began in 2018, drawing as many as 600 people.
Other nativity organizers began asking them to bring their donkey and camels to other celebrations in the region.
Jenine provides period outfits she’s sewn for those who need to borrow them.
“Having animals at a nativity program brings it to life,” said Jeral, 69. “When people watch our animals come in, they say they feel like they’re in Bethlehem, and it’s easy to imagine what life was like in Jesus’ time.”
Last December, they hauled their animals to 21 productions.
“With the coronavirus this year, some people have canceled,” Jeral, 69, said. “We hope it will be back to normal next year.”
They are planning to do their family tradition—a live nativity with physical distancing and sanitation protocols in place—at their son Jake’s home near Ucon, the first Monday of December. After the re-enactment, celebrants will linger and mingle around bonfires while sipping hot chocolate and eating cookies.
Jeral said he bought his camels “just for fun” 12 years ago after finding some listed on the internet under exotic animals. They joined his cattle and white bison.
“Our camels are gentle,” he said. “When people stop by, they always come up to visit.”
The Williams have also taken their camels to birthday parties, parades, schools, holiday events, and to a summer camp for children with cancer.
At the Christmas season, the camels’ playfulness seems to be replaced with reverence for their nativity roles.
Jeral said the programs are comforting “and could do a world of good with the pandemic and how afraid some people are. It’s enjoyable for us to share our animals and bring to life the message of the nativity.”
At the end of nativity productions, Jenine said, “People are smiling. You can tell they feel the joy of Christmas.”
Other Idaho Live Nativities
The Williams’ live nativity isn’t the only one in Idaho. Since 2014, at their farm near Moore in central Idaho, Shawn and Brenda Anderson and their donkey Gus and goats have hosted a nativity for Lost River Valley residents.
Children in homemade costumes become shepherds, wise men, and angels. Brenda assigns the roles of Mary and Joseph and a narrator, who reads the story of Jesus’ birth from the Bible.
“It’s unrehearsed and informal, and people love it,” Brenda said. “The animals don’t always cooperate, and the kids are so cute. That’s what makes it so fun and memorable. People tell me they like it because it’s not a commercialized holiday event.”
The Andersons host the event the Saturday before Christmas “as a reminder of what the season is all about,” Brenda said.
In Rupert in southeastern Idaho, Grace Church hosts a Live Nativity Drive-Thru, a popular event started three years ago with about 1,500 attendees coming from as far as Boise. This year, it is scheduled December 3 and 4, from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
About 50 costumed church members—along with camels, donkeys, sheep and goats—welcome guests as they re-enact several scenes telling of Jesus’ birth. Celebrants stay in their cars and drive through the production.
“We have a vision to take guests on an immersive journey—to transport them 2,000 years into the past, so they can experience life as Mary and Joseph would have while finding a place to stay in Bethlehem,” said Matt Johnson, Grace Church worship pastor. “We start with soldiers and tax collectors and have Jesus’ birth at the end. In the middle scenes, we have a few surprises I don’t want to give away.”
Johnson said he hopes the nativity brings comfort to everyone who attends. Considering the fear and sadness caused nationwide by social and political issues and the coronavirus pandemic, “now more than ever we need to be reminded of the hope and peace Jesus offers.”
He said some people drive through the production several times.
“They tell us they keep seeing things they missed before,” Johnson said. “It’s a lot of fun to be part of this—as church members and spectators. We hope the peace, hope and joy of Christmas stays with our guests year-round. This is our gift to the community.” ISI