By Cady Kuzmich
CLIFTON PARK — A lot more goes into putting a living Nativity together than meets the eye.
At 12 years old, I was roped into playing the Virgin Mary in my hometown living Nativity. In earlier years, I had been an angel, wearing an old bedsheet, and a wise man, doling out myrrh to the newborn babe lying in the hay-filled manger.
Mary, however, was a whole new ball game; she rode a donkey. A living, breathing donkey named Paco.
The problem was, Paco had not been trained to be ridden. So for the weeks leading up to the Nativity, my mom brought me to the home of the woman who raised Paco to get him used to the idea. With a helmet strapped on, I’d straddle the animal and hold on for dear life. While I really wasn’t very far off the ground, when Paco took off (and he did take off from time to time) adrenaline shot through me wildly.
It took Paco weeks to get used to holding a holy woman.
Such extensive preparation might not be obvious for those watching the calm Nativity scene put on by their hometown church.
Living nativities are designed as tableaux — a breathing Christmas card depicting Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus on the day of his birth. Wise men and angels, often played by area children, flank the family and sometimes barnyard animals round out the scene.
For the Nativity on Dec. 19 at the Christ Community Reformed Church on Route 146, Judy Kaiser provided the animals.
Kaiser, who is organizing the Nativity with help from an outreach committee at the church, grew up on a farm in Colonie, surrounded by horses, ponies, chickens and geese. She raised her three girls on a farm in Clifton Park, where she keeps horses, tortoises, rabbits and five dogs.
“When my first daughter was 5, we got her into riding. She’s 26 now and is still riding,” she said. Horses. Not donkeys.
Kaiser was preparing Marvin, a 6-year-old donkey, to bring to the live Nativity.
This is the second year the church has held the Nativity, and Kaiser describes it as “very pretty, with everything lit up.”
Back in the 1970s, Kaiser said there was a yearly Nativity held at a small farm along Vischer Ferry Road, back before the area became so developed.
In this year’s Nativity, Mary won’t ride in on a donkey, as I did in my hometown. The animals will just stand with the humans, all part of the tableau. Marvin is too small to be ridden, anyway.
“He’s a miniature donkey,” Kaiser explained before the event. “Marvin will just eat hay. Our bigger donkey, Henry, won’t even move. He just stares at everyone.”
Henry is nearly 30 years Marvin’s senior.
Since no one rides the donkey, there really isn’t much animal training necessary before the Nativity. “It’s really just loading them up and getting them to stand there,” Kaiser said.
Hearing this made me wonder why my church insisted I ride Paco, who clearly detested me being atop his coffee-table shaped back.
Even without riders, donkeys can get pretty busy this time of year.
“The past two years, Marvin has had back-to-back engagements,” following his living Nativity appearance with a role as “Dominic” at the Holiday Inn Express in Latham, Kaiser said.
This year Marvin had fewer obligations, and could fully commit himself to his Nativity performance. Without carrying Mary.