The Southwest Booster

The Nativity: Here and There; Then and Now


“’Tis the season” – so opens one familiar carol, one which talks about decking the halls with boughs of holly, striking the harp, and joining the chorus.

Another familiar set piece this time of year is an artificial nativity scene, which commemorat­es the birth of Christ Jesus in a stable two thousand years ago.

Now, many people would be surprised to learn that the Church’s Christmas Season – for all purposes distinct from the “Holiday Season,” which sets in some time in late November – does not officially begin until the evening of December 24th. (The two do not overlap.)

Regardless of that fact, nativity scenes are already cropping up in public and private spaces in our community. It may help to discuss a couple of little-known facts about the nativity.

The first nativity scene is much older than the market variety seen today.

The concept dates back to the year 1223 near an Italian village named Greccio. Saint Francis of Assisi, with the aid of his personal friend Giovani di Velita, a former noble and notary of the area, arranged to have the hermitage recently built for the Franciscan Order transforme­d into a live nativity scene.

Robert West writes in his biography of Saint Francis that the “hermitage clung to a cliff under the cover of trees, which leaned over the crest.”

This nativity was complete with hay and a manger.

It was (so to speak) a hit with the locals, and thus an annual tradition was born. Some contempora­ries noted how the event stirred the remembranc­e of Christ at a time when he had “been forgotten in the hearts of many.”

Francis’ more or less convention­al nativity scene was set on “a cold winter’s night” in Italy. However, many are aware that the original event happened on an unknown date in the village of Bethlehem, Israel. According to the Gospel of Luke, “while they were there, the time came for (Mary) to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:6-7) Many people imagine a stable, a roughly hewn building or even a cave as the setting for this miraculous birth. Some scratch their heads at the supposed callousnes­s of the innkeeper.

However, it is probably not the case that he put Mary and Joseph out on the street.

The findings of modern scholarshi­p have shown that the typical dwelling for ancient peoples in that context consisted of a “two-storied” shelter.

The ground floor may have served as the “stable,” housing animals, straw, and the necessary items, while the family conducted their affairs of eating and sleeping in a loft above the stable. That mode of living may have been (from our perspectiv­e) unsanitary; but what is likely the case is that the innkeeper was in fact sharing with Mary, Joseph, and their newborn infant a major section of his own house.

Though the historical integrity of this scene may be compromise­d by modern porcelain or plaster sets, I am personally more concerned that the resourcefu­l innkeeper has been impugned for too long!

With the diversity of ethnic and religious background­s in communitie­s such as this one, we are privileged to observe a variety of faith customs. Chanukah and Kwanzaa are just a couple that share the Holiday Season.

On the other hand, seeing how the Christian faith itself transmitte­d across cultures, it is also fascinatin­g to see how those cultures contextual­ize and personaliz­e their own nativity scenes – whether in Italy, the Middle East, or the vast Western hemisphere, producing a variety of its own. Along my travels, I beheld a colourful Thai painting of the nativity in a church in Bangkok.

However you observe the Holiday season, I hope you are able to enjoy and appreciate the varied and unique expression­s of this grand event: the nativity of Christ.

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