Nativity Animals & Cheese?

How many pounds of cheese can be made from the animals in a typical Nativity scene?    

It’s not such a strange question to consider.  People have been making cheese since before recorded history, perhaps as far back as 6,000 B.C. Cheese is made from a wide variety of animals—including reindeer in Scandinavia, boars in Africa, water buffaloes in Italy, yaks in Tibet, and mares in Russia.  The word “cheese” appears a few times in the Bible, and we know that cheese-making was prevalent in Roman times.

Not all Nativity scenes are the same, but most have sheep, donkeys, and camels.  Some are quite elaborate and include cats, dogs, geese, goats, cows, and even elephants.  So which of these animals produce milk for cheese?  


Donkeys have always been part of the Nativity.  A donkey carried pregnant Mary across the rocky terrain from Galilee to Bethlehem.  Is it possible to make cheese from donkey’s milk?

Actually, the world’s most expensive cheese is made from donkey’s milk.  It’s called pule and costs $880/kg.  Let’s get this out of the way now, a donkey’s milk can also be called “ass milk” and the cheese made from it "ass cheese.” Be careful “cutting” that cheese!


Goats weren’t always part of the Nativity scene, but they thrived in the Mideast when Jesus was born.  Goats can live on rough land.  They are foragers, not grazers.  For this reason, they have sometimes been called “the poor man’s cow.”  Nowadays, there are 160 breeds of goat world-wide. The best kinds for milking are Alpines, Saanens, Toggenburgs, and Nubians. 


In Biblical times, there were more sheep in the Mideast than any other kind of domesticated animal. A man's wealth was measured by the size of his flocks. Sheep are included in most manger scenes because the angel told the shepherds about the birth of Jesus. 

Sheep have only two teats, and produce a far smaller volume of milk than cows. However, since sheep's milk contains far more fat, solids, and minerals than cow's milk, it is ideal for the cheese-making process. It also resists contamination during cooling better because of its much higher calcium content.  


Camels were the transportation of the Wise Men from the East who brought the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Known for its endurance and ability to travel long distances in the desert, camels may have been one of the original cheese-making animals.  In fact, the history of cheese may have begun when a nomad, traveling with a camel, was about to set off on a journey through the desert. In preparation for his hot, thirsty journey, he filled his saddlebag, made of a dried sheep’s stomach, with milk and set off.  When he stopped some hours later for a drink, he found his milk had separated into some white solids (the curds) and a watery, milky fluid (the whey). How did this happen? There were 4 essential ingredients to the process: start with milk, add the “stirring motion” induced by the rocking walk of the camel, add the hot heat from the sun and finally, the rennin (digestive enzyme) from the sheep’s stomach. 

Making cheese from camel milk is more difficult than the milk of other dairy animals unless you are making cheese on Hump Day!


Cattle became firmly associated with modern Nativity scenes after the publication in the late 1800s of the beloved Christmas carol “Away in a Manger” and its phrase “the cattle were lowing.”  Cow’s milk was rare at the time of Jesus.  People used goat and sheep’s milk much more often.  Cow’s milk was the most important milk when St. Francis made the first Nativity scene in Italy in 1223 A.D. much cheese could be made in a year with the milk of the animals in a Nativity scene? Assume that there are 3 camels, 3 sheep, 3 goats, 3 cows, and a donkey?  The answer is about 5 TONS of cheese! And, now you know how cheese makers think when we see our favorite cheese making animals!



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