Back in the 1980s, when Charis Matey was living in Abington, her husband, Brad, bought her a pet goat. She was hooked.
She got more goats, some rabbits, a few chickens. Nature took its course. The goats had goats, the rabbits had rabbits, and, Matey said, "the neighbors didn't like it." So, in 1994, they moved to the wide-open spaces of Wrightstown, Bucks County, where she met a man who sold her a petting zoo.
Matey can't remember exactly when booking schools and private parties with her Peaceable Kingdom Petting Zoo segued into doing living Nativities. But she soon had camels, llamas that stand in for camels at smaller venues, sheep, goats, trucks big enough to carry a manger's worth of critters, a husband willing to dress like a biblical shepherd, and a booming Christmastime business.
Four years ago, Matey moved to Perkasie, to a 13-acre farm that is home to 35 species, including two camels, four Highland cows, and eight miniature donkeys. "Four of the donkeys work; four are freeloaders," she said dryly. "I'm a lifer with my animals. That's why I have freeloaders."
The 56-year-old Matey, her husband, 65, and nephew Steven Barsky, a skilled camel handler, will truck the working animals to suburban churches and one Philadelphia funeral home for 25 Nativity performances - up to three a day - from now to Christmas Eve. They care for them during each three- to five-hour show, and take them home every night.
Except for the camels, which get the diva treatment and their own truck, the animals all schmooze on the farm, so they get along fine in mangers.
Matey is the queen of live Nativities in the region. That's because she's the only one with camels, explains Mike Davis, owner of Mike's Party Ponies in Ottsville, who sometimes helps her handle her Nativity entourage. "It gets real crazy this time of year," Davis said, "and everybody wants a camel because he can do scenes."
On her farm, on a late afternoon before the season kicked in, Matey walked with her younger camel, Percy, 4, who suddenly lowered his head until he was eyeball-to-eyeball with her, stuck out his tongue, and gave her sloppy kisses.
Percy's much bigger corral-mate, Herman, 15, eyed them from 100 yards away and loudly protested. "They have a love/hate relationship," she said. "Like brothers."
Matey tethered Percy and walked to the pasture out back, where a diverse herd of farm animals, dining on piled bales of hay, looked as if they were rehearsing a manger scene.
The mutual love between Matey and her critters runs deep.
Ruger, her big Bernese mountain dog, walked by her side, leaning his massive head against her whenever she stopped. Thunder, a young yak whom she bottle-raised, waited his turn to be petted, as did Foxy Lady, a red Highland cow.
A long-haired goat named Milkshake, 3, broke through the bunch as if she were the pasture's official greeter. "She's our Houdini," Matey said. "Milkshake can squeeze through any fence. People have come up to me at a Nativity so many times and said, 'Your goat's loose,' that I finally hung a sign around Milkshake's neck with the words 'I know.' Then she ate the sign."
Matey's affection for her animals is shared by the churches she serves. Years ago, when her first camel, Khan, died, the congregation at Bryn Athyn Cathedral raised $3,000 to buy another. Percy will be in the cathedral's Nativity on Dec. 11 from 3 to 8 p.m.
Matey's season began at the Church of the Open Door in Fort Washington, where hundreds of cars drove through scenes of Jesus' birth, life, and resurrection portrayed by the congregation.
"This really draws you in because it's living," said member Doreen Whitstone. "There are a lot of things you can do to share your faith, but to see it in person in a three-dimensional way can be very powerful."
Dana Lambie, a director at Lambie Funeral Home in Northeast Philadelphia, will produce her ninth living Nativity in the parking lot on Dec. 17, featuring Percy the camel, sheep, goats, and a donkey.
"So many people come to us during their worst times," Lambie said. "So it's nice to do something positive for them and make at least one of their days a little less sad."
At Oreland Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Matey's animals will be in the manger on Dec. 17. As people drive by, "they will be able to turn to 730 AM on their car radios and hear the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke," said the Rev. Jim Farrell. "Our hope is that hearing the word of God and seeing the Nativity scene together might remind them of the true meaning of Christmas."
As long as suburban churches and one Philadelphia funeral home feel that way, the Mateys have no plans to retire.
"A lot of people in our business keep going into their 70s," she said. "We don't have a retirement age. It's in our blood. I don't think we can stop."