SOMERVILLE, N.J. - On a chilly but clear Saturday evening, a sizable crowd gathered on the lawn of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in this Somerset County town, watching a clutch of shepherds in desert robes huddle around a fire.
It was the 25th performance of the church's annual Nativity play, and this year there was a much-anticipated addition.
A murmur rustled through the crowd when what is arguably the play's second-most-important character, after the baby Jesus, entered stage left.
Preston, a six-foot-tall dromedary camel, was led by his owner, Harold Kafka, dressed as one of the wise men.
Kafka has developed a profitable side business bringing sheep, goats, and donkeys from his family's Watchung horse farm to petting zoos and events. So when the family acquired a baby camel last year, the frisky yearling quickly became a must-have addition for Nativity plays across the state.
"There's just not a lot of camels in New Jersey," said Kafka. Churches who call looking for animals are instantly intrigued when they hear about Preston.
"At first they can't believe it, and then they say, 'Tell us more,' " Kafka said. "Then they have to have him."
By October, Preston was booked solid for weekends throughout December, sometimes with two or three shows a day. And though Kafka; his 19-year-old daughter, Rachel; and his 14-year-old son, Robbie, are at the mercy of whatever costume they are given, Preston arrives with his own handwoven tasseled wool blanket and hogs the spotlight.
"He loves to wear it," Rachel Kafka said. "He just knows that he's important when he wears it."
At the Good Shepherd Nativity play, there was some excited hopping - a "camel bounce" - as the wise men made their way toward the manger, but Preston's performance was well received.
"The excitement that Preston has generated has been just wonderful," said the play's director, Ellen Parker of Somerville. "It has brought it all to a new level."
At Kafka Farm in Watchung, Preston is a local oddity.
"We're just a little farm in the middle of huge, giant mansions. Nobody knows what he is," said Rachel Kafka, who, like her mother, gives horse riding lessons at the farm. "Most people think he's a llama."
As she talks, Preston nuzzles her hand and wraps his neck around hers. He's still got more to grow and will likely stand eight feet at his single hump. He's been so successful that the Kafkas are considering getting another camel.