December 24th, 2010
06:00 AM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief blog Co-Editor
It was a brisk December night, and Little Bit, a pregnant Sicilian miniature donkey, was munching hay as little children poked and pet her.
She looked like she could go into labor at any moment there in the parking lot, which an Alexandria, Virginia, church was using for a live nativity scene.
There was no rest for the weary. Little Bit’s schedule was packed. Most weekends, she was double-booked through Christmas Eve.*
On average, she and her cohorts at Leesburg Animal Park in Leesburg, Virginia, do 35 to 40 live nativity scenes a year. On Christmas Eve, they have five appointments on the calendar.
“I think it just gives you a better feel what it would have been like, actually giving birth in a manger. It gives you a realistic sense of what it was like,” said Shirley Johnson, the manager of the animal park.
“Animals break down all sorts of barriers. When kids can come up and pet them, it just creates this nice social atmosphere,” Johnson said.
Animals play an integral role in the Christmas tradition for Christians. It’s a tradition that dates back centuries to the origins of the religion, according Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, a professor of religion at Georgetown University.
“They’re in the scriptures, they’re in the text,” she said.
Christians celebrate Christmas to commemorate the birth of Jesus. The biblical narrative of the birth stretches across two New Testament Gospels: Matthew and Luke.
In the story, an angel tells Mary that she is pregnant with the Son of God. She and her fiance, Joseph, head to Bethlehem to be counted in a census. They travel from their home in Nazareth, but when they arrive, they can’t find a place to stay and end up spending the night in a stable. Once Jesus is born, he is placed in a manger - a feeding trough used by animals.
“When the Christmas feast day becomes important in the 300s, the world was in an agrarian society. Animals in barnyards were important because that’s how people survived and traveled. They provided your livelihood, sustenance and companionship,” Apostolos-Cappadona said.
“You had an agrarian society, so people knew animals. There were symbolic connections and religious connections. There was a different way to look at animals,” she said.
As a result, animals found their way into the tradition of the Christmas story.
There is no specific mention of any animals at the manger scene in the Gospel accounts of Matthew or Luke.
Apostolos-Cappadona said you have to read between the lines. “You can’t have shepherds without sheep. You can’t have a manger without animals present in some way. Your fundamental animals at the time are going to be chickens, cows, donkeys, and maybe a horse if it was a rich neighborhood.”
Camels also meandered their way into the tradition. The biblical account talks of three wise men, or Magi, from the east following a star to visit the new baby.
“At the manger, they were normal stable animals. You wouldn’t necessarily have camels, peacocks or tigers. They were exotic. The camel has become important because of the Magi. They symbolize the Far East,” Apostolos-Cappadona said.
Donkeys are another popular addition to the nativity tradition. Apostolos-Cappadona said it is the humility of the donkey that lends its addition to the tradition. A donkey was the economy vehicle of the day, so if Joseph, a carpenter from a humble town like Nazareth, had any animal for transportation, it was probably a donkey, she said.
In ancient Gnostic traditions of Christianity, the animals first recognized Jesus as the Christ. (Christians today do not consider any of the ancient Gnostic Gospels as part of their religious canon, but the stories provide insight into how some early Christians viewed animals in the Christmas story.)
In the case of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, an ancient Gnostic text, an ox and a donkey are the first to recognize the baby as divine, “and that’s when the announcement goes out to the world, because they see it first. And that’s why the animals are so important. The animals breathe warmth on the baby Jesus. The animals keep the baby warm,” Apostolos-Cappadona said.
The tradition of using animals in Christmas plays is traced back to St. Francis of Assisi. According to tradition, Francis first used them in the 1223 Christmas Eve Mass to help tell the Christmas story. It is unknown whether he used live animals or not.
Today in the Washington, D.C., area, Leesburg Animal Park rents out several levels of live nativity scenes. A few sheep, a goat and a donkey, complete with a handler and hay, will run you around $600. “That’s a basic nativity package. Some people have camels, and some churches will do a 'walk through Bethlehem,' and they want crates of chickens and ducks," Johnson said.
As for Little Bit, she gave birth to her own Christmas miracle a few days ago, a snow-white baby donkey.
Soon after giving birth, she was back to work, acting in stables. “We gave [Little Bit] a few days reprieve, but we find they’re fine with going out. It varies. If the weather’s bad, we won’t take her.”
The park has yet to name the new Christmas baby donkey girl. Johnson says they’re taking suggestions.
*Editor's Note: After this story was published the owners of the park clarified that Little Bit only went to two performances this year. The park has lots of different animals that are able to go out instead and the individual animals typically don't go out to multiple shows a day. They also said Little Bit and the baby are doing great.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.