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Manger scene in Old City draws visitors to real meaning of Christmas

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If you’ve spent time around Old City this month, you may have come across the Rev. Michael Caine walking his donkey.

“The farm folks told us that if we got the donkey walking every day then the donkey would become accustomed and walk with us on Christmas Eve,” explained Caine this week.

A cow, two sheep, a donkey and two pygmy goats all have taken up residence in Old City, at least for this month. They’re part of the annual live holiday creche outside the Old First Reformed United Church of Christ.

On Christmas Eve, the church holds an outdoor service that’s a variation on a Mexican tradition of Los Posadas where people follow Mary and Joseph and a donkey, knocking on doors and caroling.

The Center City manager scene attracts passers-by throughout the month, from office workers to neighbors to tourists including Aurelie Gudon, a visitor from France who was wandering through the neighborhood.

“I love the farm animals and with the creche – it’s very beautiful and cute. In the street, in the city, it’s very cute,” she said.

Neighbor Bobbie Turner expressly brought a friend, in town on a business trip, to visit the scene.

“I’ve lived here for almost 20 years and I know that they’ve been doing this for probably more than that, because I think it is unique and I love seeing the animals,” Turner said.

Caine said the congregation bought the property in 1747 — then returned in 1967.

As a car alarm goes off, he says the progressive church is lots of things, but the animals have become its best known feature.

“It’s kind of an odd experience to be kind of a quintessential urban pastor and … mucking the stalls and throwing bales of hay out all of Advent, but it is very delightful,” he said.

And a way to remind people of the story of Christmas, which is what John Venafro sees. He takes his dogs, Minnie and Cooper, to see the animals on their walks throughout the month of December.

“It’s just is a nice, pleasant opportunity for people to come and appreciate what the season is really about, what Christmas is really about,” Venafro said.

The creche will be up just a few more days until it’s put away to return next Advent.

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