By Louisa Cornell
There is a long-standing tradition in the Deep South at this time of year for churches and communities to put on Live Nativity Scenes.
What is that, you say? Exactly what you think.
Members of a community or a church dress up as characters from the Nativity story and stand in a manger scene tableau under a carefully constructed, but unfortunately never straight, open-faced stable surrounded by whatever livestock the locals have handy. This always happens at night so the scenes are artfully, and sometimes not so artfully, lit usually by local deer hunters’ spotlights. The purpose? So that everyone else in the community can drive by in their cars or can gather in front of the tableau, listen to Christmas hymns provided by a choir dressed in white robes (halos and angel wings optional,) and stare at the scene for whatever amount of time their Christmas spirit and / or willingness to tolerate the weather allows. These tableaus can be seen anywhere from every night for a week to just one night, usually Christmas Eve.
Sounds like a lovely addition to any community’s holiday festivities, right?
Well… This is the South, remember?
In 1967 my Dad was stationed at Craig Air Force Base in Selma, Alabama. The winter that year was uncharacteristically cold. I do remember that much. I was nine years old. My brother, Jimmy, was six. my baby brother, Brian, was three and too young to participate in the Nativity. Lucky boy. Our church was a one night only church, Christmas Eve from around 5 PM until 10 PM. Then we all went home and waited for Santa Claus.
I was a junior angel that year. Which meant my costume was a thin white angel robe made out of some church member’s old bedsheet. However, I did get to wear a pair of angel wings made out of chicken wire and chicken feathers, which I thought was incredibly special. Of course, I didn’t know how many chickens gave up their feathers to outfit all of the angels in this tableau. Trust me, most of the chickens in Selma, Alabama were probably bare-assed once the Selma United Methodist Church got through outfitting its Heavenly Host.
My brother, Jim, was a junior shepherd. He got to wear a nice striped bathrobe over his long underwear. His outfit was completed by a large man’s handkerchief on his head with one of my Mom’s headbands around it to hold it in place. A junior-sized shepherd’s crook completed his ensemble. The highlight of Jim’s participation involved Herbert. The Goat. As this church was located in a rural part of Selma, our tableau was blessed with a cast of thousands (well dozens) when it came to the livestock occupying the stable where our Baby Jesus lay in the manger. There were three cows, two horses, a mule, two asses (hey, its in the Bible,) six sheep, an Australian shepherd, some chickens (that survived the great angel wing plucking,) and Herbert. The Goat.
Now Herbert wasn’t just any old goat. He was very handsome, had a great set of horns, and was leash trained. Remember that. And in 1967 my brother, Jim, was in charge of holding Herbert’s leash as they both stood right next to Baby Jesus (played by the pastor’s daughter’s baby doll) in the manger. A real position of honor. Mom, who played Mary that year, and Dad, who played Joseph, were so proud.
I’m not exactly sure what set it all off. After an hour of standing out in the freezing cold listening to two dozen sullen teenagers dressed as angels sing half-hearted Christmas hymns and smelling the natural results of so many real farm animals gathered under a fake stable, I was kind of over the whole junior angel thing. My angel wings started to droop and those chicken feathers itched the back of my neck. I tried to scratch, but my Mom from her place seated by the manger gave me The Look and my desire to scratch disappeared.
Which was about the time Herbert. The Goat. took a kind of obsessive interest in the Baby Jesus. It started with a nibble of the swaddling clothes (baby blankets from the church nursery.) My brother dutifully tugged on the leash and the nibbling stopped. For a minute. The next time the nibbling progressed to tugging. My brother tapped the goat on the butt with his shepherd’s staff. Good thinking, right? Not so much. Because the next time Herbert went for Baby Jesus in a big way. It all happened kind of fast, but it went sort of like this.
Herbert grabbed the Baby Jesus, swaddling clothes and all and shook him. My brother yelled “Hey, put Jesus down!” whilst smacking Herbert on the butt with the aforementioned staff. Herbert took umbrage, reared up, and butted the manger over, Baby Jesus still clutched in his bucked teeth. The asses started to bray. The dog started to bark. And Herbert took off, Baby Jesus in his mouth, and dragging my brother, who refused to let go of the leash, along the way.
All hell broke loose.
The youth choir, the half-asleep Heavenly Host, perked right up and took off in pursuit of Herbert. Angel wings and halos went flying. You haven’t lived until you see two dozen teenagers wearing bedsheets, feathers, and cowboy boots chasing a goat across the front lawn of a church before an audience of about 60 or 70 of the locals who are cheering them on. The wisemen, shepherds, Mary and Joseph (my Mom and Dad) had their hands full keeping the other animals from joining in the chase. My Dad was a city boy from New Jersey. Which is how he ended up flat on his back in a pile of cow dung. My Mom, a country girl, didn’t do much better with the sheep. Which was too bad because one of those wooly jerks knocked me over and bent my angel wings.
And all this time Herbert was doing laps around the church with Baby Jesus dragging my brother behind him. When he headed for the graveled parking lot things got serious. One brave youth choir member, who played linebacker on the high school football team, waited for Herbert to round the church on his fifth or sixth lap and tackled the goat by those impressive horns. After that several others piled on and held Herbert down whilst the pastor rescued my brother. And the Baby Jesus, who held up rather well considering. Whoever swaddled him that night did a great job.
The locals gave the entire fiasco a rousing ovation.
Needless to say, the Live Nativity was over.
My brother — several bumps, bruises, and head to toe grass stains.
The youth choir — one defensive tackle.
Baby Jesus — a dented face and retirement from future Live Nativities per the pastor’s daughter.
Herbert. The Goat. — one Live Nativity decimated and a legend that is part of Live Nativity folklore in Selma, Alabama to this day.
Happy Holidays!! And may all of your Live Nativities be Herbert ones.
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