For the last three days, the Nativity scene at Fourth and Race Streets was looking like the usual urban creche, where mannequins gaze motionless at an empty manger, awaiting the coming of the baby Jesus.

Every mid-December, however, this streetcorner in Old City springs to life. And yesterday it happened again.

"The animals are here," church secretary Rosemary Polo called out to the Rev. Jeff Shanaberger shortly after 11 a.m.

Moments later, the pastor of Old First Reformed United Church of Christ was out on Fourth Street, greeting Greg and Martha "Marty" Knott of Perkiomenville as they pulled up to the curb.

The Knotts waved, and Shanaberger peered into the back of their van and trailer.

"How're you doing, guys?" he called out to the four-legged stars of a tableaux that has been a Christmas fixture at historic Old First for about 30 years.

"Milkshake," "Sissy" and the others gazed around at their new surroundings in silence.

No one at the 281-year-old congregation knows exactly what year it was that the live creche began, according to Shanaberger, who arrived as pastor in 2005.

But some time in the 1970s, when Old City was still an "urban wasteland" of mostly abandoned factories, he said, then-pastor the Rev. H. Daehler Hayes came up with the idea as a way to attract people.

"They had a camel the first year," Shanaberger said, and chuckled. It wasn't invited back. Camels, they discovered, like to spit at people.

The six animals had been scheduled to arrive Thursday but the heavy rains delayed their delivery. It was not until the skies cleared yesterday morning that the Knotts, owners of What-Knott Farm and traveling petting zoo, decided the roads were safe for transport.

"We had to detour to get down here," said Greg Knott, as he led Milkshake, a black-and-white heifer, out of the trailer.

"Whoaaaa," called his wife as she coaxed Sissy, the donkey, onto the sidewalk.

They walked the two animals around a wood-and-wire mesh fence to a side gate, led them to the low wooden mangers filled with hay, and unclipped their leashes.

Just then, five teenagers passed by.

"That's not a

dog

," one said to other.

"Mooo," his friend called out to Milkshake as they passed by.

Moments later the Knotts walked the goats, Connie and Tittle, into the large pen surrounding the stable that will be their home until December 30.

Last came the sheep, Crystal and Tia, who headed straight for the mangers and began chewing.

"I always come by to see the animals," said Jaime Bennett, 23, who was the first visitor yesterday after their arrival.

Soon the pen was attracting double-takes from pedestrians and honks from passing cars. A surprised-looking man on a trolley-bus leaped from his seat and took photos through the window. Evenings - when parents bring their children - are busiest, said Shanaberger.

The 240-member congregation also provides a homeless shelter to about 30 men. "Just as Jesus and his parents were homeless and needed a place to stay," he said, "we try to provide shelter for those who need it.

Maintaining six animals for nearly three weeks at a busy intersection has its headaches, the pastor acknowledged.

Once the cow got out and hoofed its way down Fourth Street before it was recaptured. Two years ago, a goat was found wandering in the church courtyard.

But the site is "very secure" now, he said, and someone from the church is on-site 24 hours a day.

Despite the headaches, Old First is likely to be home to a live creche for many years to come, said Shanaberger. "It's who we are."

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.