D.C. Nativity scene

Volunteers re-enact the Nativity scene in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. while ministers take turns reading various scriptures.

“We will probably have only one camel at the U.S.Supreme Court this year. Hump-free isn’t available,” I heard a female voice explain as I exited a buffet line at a Washington, D.C. event.

Hearing that sentence will absolutely stop you in your tracks.

Live camels at the Supreme Court building of the United States? Is this evidence in a case? As a lawyer myself, the mental image of camels strolling into the staid, super dignified sanctorum of America’s highest court got my immediate riveted attention. Surely I misheard.

I stepped quickly toward two women chatting nearby.

“Pardon me, but I think I just heard you say that there are going to be live camels at the Supreme Court building. Would you tell me more about that, please?” I asked.

“Oh the camels, donkeys and sheep aren’t going to be inside the court! They are going to be on the sidewalk in front of the court,” Peggy Nienaber explained.

In further conversation, Nienaber, the friendly, vivacious vice president of the 24-year-old Faith and Liberty organization, explained that the live animals, accompanied by humans in period costumes, have been part of an annual December Nativity scene on the front sidewalk of the Supreme Court building since 2010. I accepted her invitation to attend the public preparation for the 11 a.m. event.

When the Nativity event began in 2005, it was held in the space in front of the organization’s row house office on 2nd Street NE, just a few feet across the narrow street from the east façade (back) of the Supreme Court building. Beginning in 2010, after the religious celebration is held in front of the organization’s office, the live animals and humans then march in processional to the front sidewalk of the Supreme Court buildig.

The purpose of the event, which requires multiple permission applications, is ”to encourage Christian individuals and organizations to request and place Nativity scenes in front of public buildings to portray the biblical narrative of the birth of Christ,” Nienaber explained.

A slatted truck with hay and a camel nose sticking out, two miniature donkeys and two sheep notified me that I was in the right location. Volunteers from churches, costumed from the historical era, began assembling. People driving and walking past were overwhelmingly supportive, some rolling down their windows and shouting, “Thank you for doing this!” and “You’ve made my day!” Cameras were out everywhere. A truck of workers spontaneously pulled up to take more photos.

A baritone came to the office balcony to sing a Christmas carol which echoed over Capitol Hill. A young girl shyly followed him to recite scripture. Four ministers took turns reading scripture.

Then Nienaber, whose background includes administrative work for radio great Art Linkletter and singer Pat Boone, began calling out the cast with Hollywood director flair, waving them into the processional. “Camels! Wise men! Mary, Joseph!” she called out in Cecil B. DeMille dynamo style.

I last saw them heading down the block to the steps of the Supreme Court.

Janice Law is a columnist for The Daily News. Have a travel question? Email janice.law@galvnews.com.

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