The donkey nuzzles St Joseph aside, puts his head on Mary’s lap and absent-mindedly starts chewing her folding veil. Mary and Joseph burst out laughing.

It’s not only children who are fascinated

The commotion stirs up the cow in the corner. It stands up and answers a call of nature on the straw. The fowl decides it’s time to flutter its feathers and show who’s the handsome male around. This is, as the Italians would say, il bello della diretta.

The live nativity scene in Lija, which sees the whole of St Andrew Street closed off and turned into a prop straight out of Bethlehem, is very realistic. Most of the participants donning biblical robes are from Lija and the real animals – ranging from horses, donkeys to sheep, goats, cows and fowls – belong to people in area.

It’s not only children who are fascinated. Many of the adults too reach out to pet heads and manes. “We are no longer much exposed to real animals,” says Sandro Borg, 42, from Lija who has the part of a herd-keeper and is resting on a doorstep with a calf at his feet.

“We see photos of everything but that’s not the real thing. There’s nothing better than seeing and touching.”

It’s not the first time, he says, that children point at his calf and think it’s a donkey or a big dog. “It’s such a pity really,” he laments.

Since he was little, Mr Borg used to help his uncles on their farm in the outskirts of Lija. The three month-old calf is theirs. “I’m at their farm every afternoon to help them out. I always relax so much here. In life I’ve learnt one thing: the company of animals is better than that of some people,” he jokes.

According to the nativity story, Baby Jesus was kept warm by a donkey and an ox. How realistic is that? “Here, put your hand on the calf. It’s like a nice warm coat, isn’t it?” Indeed it is, says the photographer, as he thaws his hand on the calf’s back: the perfect thing to warm up on a chilly night.

The calf seems oblivious to the petting and appears to be happily chewing something: “Ah, there, see, she’s chewing her cud. That means she’s content.”

Mr Borg stands up and the calf loyally walks close by his side as a trail of children follow them.

Further up, by the “blacksmith” is a real horse with its fowl. “She’s Shayenne”, says her owner, Christina Farrugia, 18, from Birkirkara “and she’ll be 19 next November, a year older than me”.

More than out of the Bible, Ms Farrugia comes straight of a My Family And Other Animals setting. At home they have two horses, two fowls, a sheep and some rabbits. “We have a paddock and three stalls. As soon as I get out of the door they’re all there calling me,” she says. She can’t imagine life without their animals, although she admits that as a family they have to plan their life around them. “My mother, my sister and I go on holidays but my father always stays behind to take care of them.

“Even if we go on weekend breaks, we have to drive home some three times a day to check that they’re fine. If a horse is taken sick it won’t give you time. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Shayenne stands still and merely tweaks her ears as crib visitors stop to pet her.

“You have no idea how many people nowadays do not recognise animals: Only a few minutes ago a mother was telling her child that this is a donkey,” she says echoing Mr Borg. “I guess I take it for granted.”

Back to the scene of the crib: apart from a doll baby Jesus, everything else is real, down to the fact that Joseph looks considerably older than a youngish Mary. But the animals are stealing the show.

One little girl seems transfixed by the cow in the corner. Eventually, she turns round and tells everyone: “You know, I’m going to be a cow in my school concert.”

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