It's been a few years, but the story still makes Mark Celesky grin — even giggle a little.
The Ceresco, Neb., farmer had taken his animals — a few sheep, a donkey and some camels — to Faith Christian Church to pose for the church's annual living Nativity. Celesky tethered Dalton the sheep up on a hill above the church, near the lighted marquee but far away from the Nativity scene. Dalton was supposed to represent the sheep out in the fields on the night of Jesus' birth, but he wasn't happy about it.
Dalton struggled with all his might against his tether. Against the lighted marquee, “I could see his silhouette jumping and twisting,” Celesky said. In previous years, Dalton had been at the center of the manger scene. Twice Celesky went up the hill to calm Dalton, once wiping his slightly bloody nose. But the sheep would not settle. A few minutes later, he broke free.
“There was Dalton, back in his old spot,” next to the manger in front of a warm spotlight. His tether dangled from his halter, said Celesky.
Dalton was pretty smart, he said, but still “it's surprising what these animals remember.”
Celesky's animals, from his Boarding House Farms, were back on display this year at Faith Christian and Holy Cross Lutheran Church, both in Omaha.
Living Nativities are a long tradition for these churches. Faith Christian has presented a living Nativity for more than 25 years. “This congregation believes this Nativity scene to be a gift they give to the community,” said Rev. Katrina Palan, the church's interim pastor.
Holy Cross Lutheran just marked its 10th year of presenting a living Nativity. Pastor Jim Killough said the Nativity helps the congregation reach out to its neighbors and community members.
“We want to make sure we share the good news of the season,” he said.
For Celesky, his wife, Lori, and their five kids, providing these experiences for people is a way of life. The Celeskys moved to their 33-acre farm 23 years ago. They started to board horses and brought home a pony and goat to amuse nieces and nephews. Six years later, Mark Celesky quit his job in corporate sales and customer service to devote his full attention to Boarding House Farms and to animal displays and shows.
As the couple's five kids came along, so did more animals. Boarding House Farms became home to a full-fledged petting zoo that is licensed, inspected and regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Celeskys began to provide animals shows and displays for Vala's Pumpkin Patch in Gretna. Word spread about the animals, and churches started to call. Cecelia, a 19-year-old miniature donkey, was recruited for Palm Sunday duty.
“She's very well-known on the church circuit,” said Celesky.
Providing animals for living Nativities started 15 years ago.
“We're kind of special because of the camels,” said Celesky.
Camille, Cleo and Chloe, three dromedary (one hump) camels, live at Boarding House, which is currently home to about 50 animals — camels, ponies, llamas, goats, donkeys and a zebu (a cow native to Brazil.) The animals can offer challenges. They currently eat 1,200 to 1,500 pounds of hay a week. The herd's health issues often stump the local vet, though the Celeskys can tap an extensive network of folks who work with exotic animals.
For a typical living Nativity, the Celeskys bring 10 animals (camels, sheep or goats, donkeys and ponies) at a cost of $295 per hour. Churches must book a year in advance.
Lori Celesky said her family has enjoyed working at the living Nativities. Some churches transform their buildings into complete villages to represent Bethlehem, while others present simple displays.
“It's very cool to see different churches' interpretations,” she said.
Either way, said Mark Celesky, a living Nativity is sure to capture the attention of anyone who visits.
They put people in the moment, he said.