It’s that time of year again! Time for me to lead the llama down the aisle at The First Baptist Church of Greater Cleveland’s (FBC) big Christmas pageant. This has been my task for over fifteen years and has become a tradition.
Though I do not attend the church regularly, the pageant holds a special place in my heart. I am the only founder of this event that still participates. It is bittersweet this year because one integral member who also founded the pageant and attended it regularly passed away. This year’s event should be dedicated to the irreplaceable Vi Gore.
Most people do not remember or know how the annual pageant began.
The idea of a live animal Christmas pageant, a telling of the Nativity in words and music with appropriate animals, was the brainchild of former Executive Minister, Reverend Doctor James Cowin. Dr. Cowin brought the idea to FBC, as he had created a similar event at a previous church.
I was chair of FBC’s Marketing Committee and embraced the unique idea. Basically, the other active member on the committee was secretary Vi Gore. Our task was to market the event and sell it to the membership and the public.
Dr. Cowin came up with the program. I developed a theme and marketing plan. Vi implemented it. Together, we organized the event. I secured the first group of animals from Zoo-4-U in Painesville. The church now has animals from the amazing and loving rescue group at Stump Hill Farm.
The theme for the first pageant was “Unwrap the Magic of Christmas.” A graphic designer created the design for handout postcards and newspaper advertisements and posters. Volunteers joined in to create the costumes, cast and characters. Church mover and shaker, Fran Leanza, directed the first event. Some of the costumes and the kings’ canopies are still used.
There was some concern and opposition. The Senior Minister quipped that animals had no place in the church sanctuary. I begged to differ. After all, Christ was born in a stable among the animals and placed in a manger, an animal feeding trough. What was more appropriate and authentic?
A donkey accompanies Mary and Joseph. The shepherds herd real sheep and goats. There have been cows and birds as well, even a very vocal duck. At the time, a camel wasn’t available to lead the procession of the Three Kings (a camel is now the star attraction). The farm did offer a llama. No one wanted to deal with the llama. A large two-year old male llama could be rather intimidating. Crazy me volunteered. A tradition was born. I became the lead kings’ attendant and “llama mama” servant girl.
The role was rather appropriate. I am a Middle Eastern belly dance instructor and performer. I did have costuming. All of the kings’ attendants were given old gold choir robes to wear in the event. Overskirts and jewelry were added to add some glitz. The robes were sleeveless and cold. In later years, I sewed a red velvet jacket and velvet overskirt for warmth and also a red velvet veiled hat. I added my dance hip scarf and coin jewelry. Dance makeup completed the look. Sandals were worn to look a bit authentic.
My love of animals helped and I learned as much as I could about llamas before taking on the task. This knowledge has proven to be very valuable. Llamas are rather gentle creatures, much like large dogs. They like to be caressed on their neck, held close, hummed at and even kissed. They can be so cute. Yes, I have actually kissed llamas!
Llamas can, however, be a bit energetic, feisty and temperamental. One has to have the upper hand. Two-year old adolescent males can be a bit wild and a challenge. They are capable of deadly kicking, so one must be aware of what and who is behind at all times. I keep a distance from people in case one should kick. After all, kicking is how these creatures kill wolves and other predators while doing their jobs as guardians of sheep herds. They can be dangerous, so one has to be careful. The public doesn’t seem to understand this important fact. Llamas are also pack animals that cannot be ridden. They are sure footed but slate tile can be a challenge (thus, the necessity for rubber mats). They need to be walked, as they move constantly. Each animal has a distinct personality.
I have had some fun and not-so-fun experiences. A male llama was ticked at a bright light fixture and actually spit at it in angst. I had a young llama sit and not get up while walking down the aisle. I nudged him up with my foot, as directed earlier by its keeper. He completed the walk. Once, we had two llamas and mine raced the other up the aisle in a spirited and competitive race. One year, I carried a baby llama down the aisle and held her during the program. She was twenty-five pounds of cute fluff. I’ve had mothers and, in later years, their babies. I never know the age of the llama until I show up on Christmas Eve.
I am frequently asked where my farm is located. People think that I own llamas. I would if I had the property. Llamas hold a special part in my heart. I am honored to lead the llama and play a small role in this festive event.
The live animal pageant was and continues to be a resounding success. Parents, children, grandparents and grandchildren make attending a holiday tradition. People from other churches and other faiths attend. We have even had Jewish friends come. Little children still gasp in awe. Flashes from cameras and video still pop off. The Christmas story told as a play in words and music with animals and candlelight continues.
Come join us! All are welcome!
December 24, 2015 (Christmas Eve)
The First Baptist Church of Greater Cleveland
3630 Fairmount Blvd.
Shaker Heights, Ohio 44118